Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places through
science, policy, education, and environmental law.


For Immediate Release: July 21, 2003
Contacts: Michael J. Robinson, 505-534-0360
Scotty Johnson, 520-623-9653 x 103

Non-profit organizations Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife today filed suit in federal court to ensure the return of North America’s largest cat, the jaguar, panthera onca.

Jaguars typically display a golden colored pelage with black rosettes that appear from afar as spots. In some jaguars, the entire pelt is black. The jaguar is highly adaptable and known to range widely and occupy a variety of different types of ecosystems, from tropical rainforests to grasslands, deserts, woodlands, and even high elevation mixed conifer forests of spruce and fir.

The litigation, targeting Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her Fish and Wildlife Service, seeks to jumpstart conservation actions through the timely creation of a recovery plan, six years after the jaguar was listed as an endangered species in the United States. The suit also cites the failure of the Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for the jaguar.

A recovery plan is an overarching planning document that takes into account how an animal or plant became imperiled and what steps are necessary to recover that species. Without a recovery plan, conservation measures may be piecemeal and inadequate to the task.

Killing of jaguars by the federal government and private individuals as well as human encroachment into jaguar habitat resulted in its extirpation from the U.S..

Heightened conservation measures are crucial to allowing jaguars to reclaim their ancestral territory before new border fences, roads and sprawling rural developments cut off migratory routes and prevent jaguars from re-establishing themselves in New Mexico and Arizona.

" Within one human lifetime this crowning jewel of American wildlife heritage has been eliminated from our wilderness" said Scotty Johnson of Defenders of Wildlife, chair of the interagency Jaguar Conservation Team outreach committee.

He added: "The American jaguar has many supporters. Wildlife advocates, scientists and ranchers work on its behalf. The cat reminds us of what we have lost and gives us hope with it’s return. The Service can help with this. It’s time for the Bush administration to stop de-funding recovery plans and provide funds to Fish and Wildlife to save this majestic American icon."

Michael J. Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity pointed to the potential for jaguars to thrive in New Mexico and Arizona’s Gila and Blue range, the latter of which was the locale where the last known wild female jaguar in this country was killed in 1963.

“ We look forward to jaguars once again wandering the cottonwood and alder shaded canyons of the Gila, San Francisco and Blue Rivers,” he said, adding: “Linking habitat in the U.S. to habitat in Mexico is the best strategy for ensuring that future generations will be able to thrill to the sight of a big paw print in the wet sand.”

Prior to the 1997 listing of the jaguar as endangered in the U.S. – a result of a 1992 scientific petition by southern Arizona rural resident and biologist Anthony Povilitis, Ph.D., and 1996 follow-up litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity – the jaguar was listed as endangered only south of the U.S. - Mexico border.
The species had originally been placed on the federal endangered species list under authority of the 1969 predecessor to the modern (1973) Endangered Species Act, but it lost that protection north of the border in 1973 due to what the Fish and Wildlife Service termed a typographic “oversight.”

In 1987, a jaguar that had been reported as living in southern Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains for over a year was shot. In 1992, Chiricahuas resident Dr. Povilitis filed a scientific petition to again protect the species under the ESA, but the Fish and Wildlife Service did not act on that petition until the Center for Biological Diversity followed it up with litigation in 1996, leading to a listing the following year.

Populations of the jaguar in Mexico are now becoming fragmented and isolated, with each subpopulation successively succumbing to the pressures of habitat destruction and human persecution. This pattern mirrors the decline last century of the jaguar in the U.S..

However, there is hope: Conservationists are raising money to purchase land in Sonora, Mexico, approximately 120 miles south of Douglas, Arizona, that scientists say supports the northernmost extant jaguar population and the source of jaguars that are thought to roam in the U.S.. An estimated 75 - 100 of the big cats are thought to live in this region.

Jaguars sighted in the U.S in recent times are thought to be young males searching out new territories. Since 1996, three different jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico have been photographed near the border with Mexico.
The most recent U.S. jaguar photograph was taken in December, 2001, by a motion-operated camera set five miles north of the border. The Border Patrol plans to construct hundreds of miles of impermeable fifteen foot fences in that vicinity.

In historic times the jaguar roamed throughout the southern tier of states, and in prehistoric times it occupied almost all of the contiguous United States: Panthera onca remains from ten thousand years ago have been unearthed in New England.

Writer Peter Matthiessen, in his classic book Wildlife in America (1987), described the species’ range as established as far north as the Red River in Arkansas, and noted a credible report from the mountains of North Carolina in 1737. Several early accounts also mentioned jaguars and “tigers” in Louisiana, including the killing of one in 1886.

According to the late Vernon Bailey, one of the top mammalogists in the U.S. and chief field naturalist for the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey (predecessor to the Fish and Wildlife Service), jaguars were once common in southern and eastern Texas but by the time of his writing in 1905 had become extremely rare. Nevertheless, jaguars were still killed on the Great Plains of central Texas as late as 1947 and 1948.

In New Mexico, a jaguar was poisoned in the Datil Mountains north of the Gila in 1902. That same year and in 1903, according to Bailey, the New Mexico state game warden reported successive jaguar sightings in northeastern New Mexico on the Great Plains, accounts Bailey found credible (his 1931 book, Mammals of New Mexico, details these). Sightings were also reported along the Rio Grande in 1922, and a government predator hunter pursued with his dogs (but did not catch) a jaguar in the San Andres Mountains (in the vicinity of today’s White Sands Missile Range) in 1937.

Arizona has the best documented population of jaguars, with jaguars killed or documented in the state during each decade of the 20th century. Among them, a female with kittens was killed near the Grand Canyon during the winter of 1907/1908. Kittens were also captured alive in 1906 in the Chiricahuas after their mother was shot.

In 1919, C. Hart Merriam, the eminent mammalogist who founded and led the Biological Survey (and supervised Vernon Bailey), published an analysis of several accounts of jaguars from various locations in California, as far north as the Monterrey Bay. The last known individual from California was killed near Palm Springs in 1860.
The Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on December 28, 1973 in order to conserve and recover threatened and endangered species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.


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