For Immediate Release, August 2, 2007
Contact: Michael Robinson, (505) 534-0360
TUCSON, Ariz.— Today the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit in federal district court in Tucson to compel the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a recovery plan and designate critical habitat for endangered jaguars in the United States.
"Jaguars are powerful but shy," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. "They are retiring, elusive animals with exquisite camouflage for hiding in dappled sunlight or foliage. After more than a century of persecution, a few still survive in southern Arizona and New Mexico."
Recovery plans and critical habitat are required by the Endangered Species Act once a species is determined by the government to be endangered. The plans are a road map to restoring a species so that it no longer hovers on the brink of extinction; critical habitat protects the homes of wild creatures and has been proven to speed progress toward recovery.
Added Robinson, "Without a recovery plan and protected habitat, American jaguars just don't stand a chance."
The scientific community supports recovery planning and critical habitat. On June 10, 2007, almost 600 biologists from around the nation, members of the American Society of Mammalogists, unanimously approved a resolution calling for a recovery plan and critical habitat designation for jaguars in the United States. The mammalogists' resolution noted that " 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."
Jaguars evolved in North America and still survive in a tiny corner of the Southwest. The jaguar is the largest cat native to the New World, and the third-largest cat globally. Fossils from the state of Washington, Nebraska and Maryland indicate that the jaguar evolved in North America, spread south to colonize Central and South America, then lost its far northernmost range, perhaps as recently as 15,000 years ago.
In historic times jaguars ranged from California, as far north as Monterey Bay, east all the way to the Carolinas. Persecution and loss of habitat shrank that range drastically. Jaguars were gone from the East by the 1800s, and the last was killed in California in 1860. The last jaguar in Texas was killed in 1948. In Arizona and New Mexico, at least one jaguar has been confirmed in every decade throughout the 20th century. Many of them were trapped, poisoned or shot by the Fish and Wildlife Service's predator-control program.
Since the 1990s, a total of four jaguars have been photographed in southern Arizona and New Mexico. Jaguars have also been seen but not photographed further north in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico, including one daylight observation by two biology professors from New Mexico's Highlands University.
A recent report in the scientific journal Wild Cat News suggests that the long tenure of two confirmed male jaguars indicates the presence of one or more mates for these animals, female jaguars that as yet remain undetected. The last confirmed female jaguar in the United States was killed in the Apache National Forest of Arizona in 1963.
Action to recover jaguars in the U.S. has been delayed since 1973. The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the jaguar as endangered under the predecessor law to the 1973 Endangered Species Act, but through what the agency termed an "oversight" failed to place the jaguar in the United States on the modern endangered species list. In 1979, the agency pledged to "take action as quickly as possible" to list the jaguar domestically, but did not do so. In 1992, Dr. Anthony Povilitis petitioned the federal agency to list the jaguar in the United States, but it was not until July 22, 1997, in response to a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity seeking action on that petition, that the jaguar was finally listed as an endangered species in the United States.
In 1997 the Fish and Wildlife Service stated it would not designate critical habitat in part because "To the extent that identification of habitats that are essential for recovery of the species rangewide is necessary, the Service would identify these areas as part of the recovery planning process." Yet no recovery planning is underway nor even planned at present — ten years after the jaguar was listed as an endangered species in the United States.
State-led Jaguar Team is all talk, no action. The Fish and Wildlife Service sometimes claims that the state of Arizona-led "Jaguar Conservation Team," established in 1997 when the jaguar was placed on the domestic endangered species list, serves as a de facto recovery team. But the "Jaguar Conversation Team," as it is informally known, was never intended to recover jaguars.
The Bush administration also cites the Jaguar Conservation Team as a replacement for critical habitat. Yet the team failed to fulfill its 1997 pledge "to coordinate protection of jaguar habitat." With the Center for Biological Diversity's help, the team identified and mapped more than 62 million acres of potentially suitable jaguar habitat in New Mexico and Arizona. But it has not protected any habitat anywhere.
"The Jaguar Conversation Team is not a substitute for a recovery plan and critical habitat," said Robinson. "After ten years of meetings and paper-pushing, the team has not protected a single acre of habitat for this highly endangered animal, which has all but disappeared from American soil."