by Shaun McKinnon - Feb. 1, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
The elusive jaguar, the largest cat in the Western hemisphere, and the Southwestern willow flycatcher, a tiny songbird that summers in Arizona, shared little except the odd riverbank and their status as endangered species.
Now, they have been brought together in a drive to toughen enforcement of the federal Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided earlier this month that both the jaguar and flycatcher could warrant more protection across wider areas of the West. The agency reversed two of its own decisions that had been made under the Bush administration.
The actions could signal a shift in policy at the Wildlife Service, the agency that oversees the Endangered Species Act, and lead to stronger protections for wildlife and new limits on land use.
Both of the latest decisions resulted from lawsuits against the Wildlife Service. In the first, the agency agreed to create a recovery plan and designate critical habitat areas for the jaguar. In the second, officials agreed to review and possibly expand the habitat areas for the Southwestern willow flycatcher.
Drafts of the plans are due in 2011.
Conservation groups cheered the reversals as welcome steps away from what were seen as often-hostile policies under the Bush administration, though the groups acknowledged that their own lawsuits could have prompted the latest actions as much as the change in the White House.
Critics of the Endangered Species Act, including property-rights advocates and businesses that use the land for mining or ranching, will weigh in once the Wildlife Service spells out specifics. Some of those critics watched in dismay last year as Obama removed some Bush-era controls on the act.
What emerges from the work of agency biologists and policy makers will be closely watched not only by the conservation groups but also by landowners and others who want to see if the Obama administration will tilt wildlife-management policies in a new direction.
Although some conservation groups say the new administration hasn't moved quickly enough, the Wildlife Service has agreed to re-examine at least 48 species' cases from the Bush years, including the flycatcher and the jaguar, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based group that has filed hundreds of lawsuits in species-protection cases.
In both cases, the species were already listed as endangered. The issues before the wildlife agency are critical habitats and, for the jaguar, a recovery plan.
A critical-habitat designation does not create a refuge or restrict uses of private land but requires federal agencies to consider the species before taking any action or issuing permits that could affect the habitat.
A recovery plan identifies steps to help increase the numbers of a species.
The jaguar was listed as endangered in 1997 after hunters and settlers pushed it from its habitat. The big cat once prowled wide expanses of the Southwest, including Southern Arizona's biologically rich Sky Islands, and scientists say it ventured as far north as San Francisco hundreds of years ago.
But the Wildlife Service never designated critical-habitat areas or created a species recovery plan, in part because biologists concluded the jaguar populations had largely retreated to Mexico and no longer lived north of the U.S.-Mexican border.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, another advocacy group, challenged the conclusion, arguing that the Endangered Species Act required the government to look at the historic range of a species.
"We shouldn't allow a species to go extinct in the United States just because they exist outside our borders," said Bob Irvin, senior vice president for conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife.
The jaguar case took on a more public dimension last year when one of the only cats known to roam habitat north of the border, one known as Macho B, died in captivity after the Arizona Game and Fish Department fitted it with a radio collar.
Most scientists say Macho B likely wandered north from a larger cat population in Mexico, but conservation groups say the case underscored the need to allow jaguars to find their own territory.
"The point of critical habitat is not to protect just the few jaguars that might be in the country now," said Michael Robinson, who works on the jaguar issue for the center. "It's habitat necessary for recovery, to increase the numbers so they're not on the brink of extinction."
One obstacle to rebuilding a jaguar population in Arizona is physical: the long lengths of fence and walls on the U.S.-Mexican border that have been built to thwart illegal border-crossers. Some of the largest gaps in the wall are in the most rugged terrain, the sort of environment jaguars might roam, but conservation groups say any impediments will slow northward migration.
For the flycatcher, a small songbird that nests along Southwestern riparian areas and winters in Mexico and South America, there are fewer of those broader questions.
The bird was listed as endangered in 1995 as its riparian homes fell victim to growth and overused rivers. The Wildlife Service designated critical habitat areas for the bird and created a recovery plan, and in 2004, agency scientists proposed designating about 376,000 acres of habitat for the flycatcher.
But the Bush administration, heeding complaints by mining companies and other land users, reduced the final plan to 120,000 acres in six states mostly on short lengths of rivers, including the Verde, the Salt, the Gila and the Colorado.
The Center for Biological Diversity sued, and the result was the decision last month to re-examine the habitat.
The Bush plan excluded some areas because a landowner or land user proposed a habitat-conservation plan that would offer some of the same protections as a federal plan. One such case was on Roosevelt Lake on the Salt River and Horseshoe and Bartlett lakes on the Verde River.
Salt River Project, which manages the reservoirs, agreed to spend millions of dollars to set aside flycatcher habitat in other locations in exchange for the government excluding the reservoir areas. SRP was worried that if the reservoirs were included in the critical habitat, it might have been prohibited from filling the lakes if the birds nested in willows or brush exposed by low water levels. The lakes are a critical source of water for Phoenix and other cities.
One of the issues landowners will likely raise is the protection of unoccupied habitat, areas where a species may not live currently but either has in the past or could in the future. Critics say such protections do little to help the wildlife but can block legitimate uses of the land. Conservation groups say the wider nets are crucial.
"By the time most species are listed under the act, they are already missing from significant areas of their historic range," said Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife programs director for WildEarth Guardians, another advocacy group that has sued the government over endangered species. "If there aren't protections, it makes recovery more difficult."
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org