Michael J. Robinson, 505-313-7017
Conservationists To Sue Over
Bush Administration’s Jaguar Decision
Rare Cat Denied Critical Habitat Protection
The Center for Biological Diversity today sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its decision to not designate critical habitat for the endangered jaguar. The government’s decision, also issued today, was required by a court approved settlement agreement in a previous Center-led lawsuit.
“This latest decision will not withstand judicial review,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity in Pinos Altos, New Mexico. Center litigation, public education and organizing were responsible for the original listing of the jaguar as an endangered species in the United States on July 22, 1997.
Jaguars are the largest cats native to North America, typically displaying black rosettes (incomplete circles) on their golden fur but occasionally exhibiting a “melanistic,” or black, phase.
Jaguars once roamed the entire southern suite of states from Monterrey Bay in California through the Appalachian Mountains and Florida. Jaguars were hunted out of the southeastern United States by the 19th century. In the western United States they were exterminated by the Fish and Wildlife Service and its predecessor agency to protect livestock. The last female jaguar known in the United States was killed in 1963 in eastern Arizona where Mexican gray wolves have been reintroduced.
Jaguars have continued to migrate from Mexico into Arizona and New Mexico throughout the 20th century. Most of the returning animals have been killed. However, over the past 10 years five different jaguars have been photographed by trip cameras and hunters who allowed the jaguars to live. It appears several male jaguars are consistently using areas in the United States for all or part of their ranges and some of these are still alive today.
Jaguars are losing habitat in the southwestern United States at an accelerating pace. The riparian forest of the San Pedro River in Arizona, which may serve as a travel pathway for jaguars from Mexico, is threatened as a result of the ongoing draining of the river for agriculture and urban development. The riparian forest of the Gila River is threatened by a major water project that Congress authorized in December 2004. Livestock grazing continues to destroy streamsides, and massive new strip mines are being proposed and approved that would destroy riparian habitat and further de-water rivers and streams.
The jaguar’s upland habitats are threatened as well. Urban and exurban development significantly encroaches into jaguar habitat throughout much of its range. And increasing border developments – such as fences, stadium-style lights, roads and off-road vehicle destruction of vegetation – threaten the ability of jaguars to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Today’s decision is based on purposefully inadequate information, and erroneous logic,” said Robinson.
The Federal Register notice states that “Because the area used by jaguars in the United States is such a small part of the overall range of the species and because of nomadic use by jaguars, the range of the jaguar in the United States is not enough area to provide for the conservation (i.e., recovery) of the jaguar or even make a significant contribution to the conservation of the jaguar, and cannot be defined as essential to the conservation of the species.”
However, the Jaguar Conservation Team (JCT) has identified a northern population of the jaguar that could be recovered separately from jaguars in Central and South America. The JCT identified more than 62 millions of acres of suitable habitat for jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico (a copy of the report is available from Robinson by request). There has been no assessment of whether the habitat that has been identified or habitat in other states is sufficient or not to recover the northern population of jaguars.
“Jaguars are beautiful animals, and they help to keep the balance of nature,” said Robinson. “Critical habitat provides legal protection for the areas required to recover the jaguar. The longer the government stalls, the harder it will be to recover the jaguar. This decision is disappointing, and it will not stand.”
The government’s notice is posted on today’s Federal Register, Vol. 71 FR 39335, accessible at http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/aces/fr-cont.html.
Background on Critical Habitat
The Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on December 28, 1973 to recover threatened and endangered species and conserve the ecosystems upon which they depend. Critical habitat is essential to fulfilling the Act’s hopeful promise.
The Endangered Species Act requires the designation of critical habitat, which is defined as the areas needed for the conservation of an endangered species. Conservation is defined as recovery – or the point at which an animal or plant can be removed from the endangered species list. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service has abused narrow exemptions to the requirement to designate critical habitat, and the Bush administration has proved particularly hostile to such designations. Its related decisions are routinely overturned by federal courts.
A peer-reviewed article in the journal Bioscience found that species with designated critical habitat were approximately twice as likely to be making progress toward recovery (the goal of the Endangered Species Act) than those without.
Administrative History on Jaguars
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision today follows a consistent pattern of antipathy toward conservation of carnivores and failure to abide by legal requirements. Jaguars were listed in 1972 as an endangered species under the 1969 statutory precursor to the Endangered Species Act. This designation made it illegal to import jaguar pelts from Mexico and Central and South America. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service used a legal loophole to continue issuing “hardship permits” to safari companies, which allowed them to kill jaguars and import them into the United States.
After President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973, the Fish and Wildlife Service created two lists of endangered species – one foreign and one domestic. Jaguars were listed as a foreign species but not as endangered in the U.S. Within a few years, the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged that jaguars deserved protection and recovery in the U.S.: In a July 25, 1979, Federal Register notice, the agency pledged that “action will be taken as quickly as possible to . . . correct the oversight” and list jaguars as endangered. But the agency failed to follow through.
The jaguar was finally listed as an endangered species on July 22, 1997 as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity. In refusing to designate critical habitat at that time, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in the Federal Register: “To the extent that identification of habitats that are essential for recovery of the species range-wide is necessary, the Service would identify these areas as part of the recovery planning process.” However, the Fish and Wildlife Service has also failed to begin a recovery planning process.
The Center and other conservationists sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in July 2003 to compel designation of critical habitat and development of a recovery plan. In a good-faith gesture, the plaintiffs agreed to hold off on the requirement that a recovery plan be developed in return for a re-assessment of the initial decision to deny the jaguar’s critical habitat designation. With the Fish and Wildlife Service’s refusal to do so today, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice to warn it will sue once again.
No other recovery actions are taking place for the jaguar. The animals continue to be harassed by hunting dogs. One of the jaguars residing in southern Arizona was chased by dogs into Mexico and killed there. Others have been displaced from their habitats and may have been killed – unknown to American authorities – as a result of the known encounters with hunting dogs.
The Wildlife Services (WS) predator killing program, which is carried out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has only limited its operations in a small portion of areas in which jaguars are known to roam, and even in those areas, there is evidence (previously presented to the Fish and Wildlife Service) that WS continues to use proscribed killing techniques.
The Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security have utterly failed to participate in, or even use the information developed by the Jaguar Conservation Team, in planning and carrying out their actions. Thus border developments continue to fragment jaguar habitat and likely restrict jaguar movements.
For the animals,