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News Leader, August 12, 2008

Time to bring the jaguar back?
By Michael Robinson, Center for Biological Diversity

Before there was the football team, the Jacksonville jaguars would have meant big spotted cats that biologists say were “especially common in Florida.” We usually think of jaguars as exclusively a tropical rainforest animal, but before they were exterminated from the United States they ranged from Jacksonville to San Francisco.

We usually think of jaguars as exclusively a tropical rainforest animal. But before we eliminated them in the United States the big spotted cats ranged from the Carolinas to California. Now they are endangered, losing their habitats in South America and Mexico, on the way to extinction.

In our own nation, however, the jaguar may be on the verge of a comeback; but only with some help from us.

Jaguars have begun migrating back into Arizona and New Mexico from Mexico, reclaiming still-wild habitat. But the Bush administration is now building a 15-foot-high wall across much of the United States border with Mexico, and has simultaneously decided not to develop a recovery plan for the jaguar.

Recovery plans ennumerate how many animals or plants and in what distribution would constitute recovery - the point at which a creature has moved away from the brink of extinction and is secure enough to be taken off the endangered species list. Recovery plans also specify actions to achieve recovery, such as habitat protection or reintroduction.

The administration claims that a recovery plan would do no good because "the United States supports a small fraction of the individuals and available habitat of the jaguar" and recovery "must be focused on its core range outside of the United States."

If having few individuals in the U.S. disqualifies an endangered species from a recovery plan, gray wolves would never have been reintroduced and begun their recovery. Four individual jaguars, identifiable by their unique pattern of spots, have been photographed in Arizona and New Mexico since 1996, one of them repeatedly - more than the number of wolves known in the northern Rocky Mountains or the Southwest when recovery plans were developed for them.

Now, over 1,500 wolves roam the Rockies, and around 50 wolves hang on in the Southwest. Jaguars have the same potential to rebound.

What about the jaguar's available habitat? Three studies each identified millions of acres of potential jaguar habitat in Arizona and New Mexico, and nobody has studied potential jaguar habitat elsewhere in the U.S. where they used to live.

Are jaguars so secure outside the United States to merit writing them off domestically? The Bush administration admits that conservation plans outside the U.S. have "fallen short in stemming the decline of the jaguar."

Even if jaguars elsewhere were not declining, the U.S. would remain important to them. The American Society of Mammalogists (scientists who study mammals) states: "Habitats for jaguars in the United States, including Arizona and New Mexico, are vital to the long-term resilience and survival of the species, especially in response to ongoing climate change."

The mammalogists also state that "ecosystems in the United States in which jaguars formerly occurred are not intact without the sustained presence of jaguars."

There is no need to choose between recovery at home and abroad. The Fish and Wildlife Service has worked with foreign nations to develop international recovery plans for the Mexican gray wolf (1982) and the whooping crane (2007), among others creatures.

The Center for Biological Diversity has filed suit to ensure development of a jaguar recovery plan. The outcome of that suit may play a significant role in the decision on whether to keep walling off the United States from wildlife whose wanderings pre-date any border.

Michael Robinson works for the Center for Biological Diversity in Piños Altos, N.M., and is author of Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West (University Press of Colorado, 2005).

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton