by Susan Montoya Bryan - Jan. 9, 2010 12:00 AM
ALBUQUERQUE - Federal officials said Friday that despite a court-ordered deadline, a final decision has not been made on whether to develop a recovery plan and set aside critical habitat for the elusive endangered jaguar.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was bound by a court order to issue a decision in the jaguar case by the end of business Friday. Spokesman Tom Buckley said the agency's lawyers asked for an extension, and a decision wasn't expected until next week.
"There's been discussion within the service on both sides of this and they're still discussing it," Buckley said.
Conservationists see the case as a test of whether the Obama administration will take extra steps to protect animals whose ranges stretch beyond the nation's borders.
Jaguars, the largest cats native to the Western hemisphere, live primarily in Mexico, Central and South America. They once inhabited an extensive area that spanned California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. They were thought to have been eliminated in the U.S. until two were spotted in 1996.
Most recently, a snare captured a jaguar last year southwest of Tucson. The cat, nicknamed Macho B, was collared and released. Just weeks later, he was recaptured and euthanized after falling ill, sparking a firestorm of criticism over jaguar recovery efforts.
Conservation groups prodded the Fish and Wildlife Service for days, looking for signs of what the decision might be. The anxiety escalated Friday afternoon, and it appeared their patience would pay off when the agency planned a news conference to announce a decision.
By late Friday, it was clear no word was coming.
"It's disappointing because the jaguar has suffered from delay after delay, year after year, and even decade after decade to get real on-the-ground protection that it should have received back in the 1970s," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.
His group was among several that sued to force the agency to develop a recovery plan.
Buckley said the Fish and Wildlife Service has not taken the decision lightly and has carefully analyzed new information that has come in since the agency last decided in 2006 not to designate critical habitat for the species.
Robinson argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service had since last March to settle the issue but chose to wait until the end of Friday to ask for an extension.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org