Endangered Jaguars Gain 1,194 Square Miles of Critical Habitat in Southwest

American JaguarOne of the most majestic endangered species in the American Southwest, the jaguar, may get a little bit of breathing room, in the form of habitat protection across 764,207 acres (1194 square miles) of southern Arizona and New Mexico.

Thanks to the work of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the US Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized their designation of six units (each with one or more mountain ranges in which the animals have been recorded in recent years) of protected areas as “critical habitat” for jaguar recovery, some five years after a similar initiative was rejected by a federal court.

“Jaguars disappeared from their U.S. range due to clearing of forests and draining of wetlands and killing to protect livestock. The last female jaguar in the United States was shot by a hunter in 1963 in Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. Although jaguars in Mexico are declining as well, dispersing male jaguars thought to emanate from the now-protected Northern Jaguar Reserve, 130 miles south of the border, have periodically established ranges in the United States.” – CBD

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The designation as critical habitat prohibits any federal agency from “adversely modifying” or destroying those habitats, such as could happen if mining permits or other commercial activities are approved in those areas. This may immediately affect some proposed mining operations, as the CBD states there is a jaguar currently living in the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson, on Forest Service land, which is “in the footprint of the proposed Rosemont Copper Mine.”

“The critical habitat designation consists of six units, each containing one or more mountain ranges in which jaguars have been recorded in recent years or through which they are thought to have traveled. The designation includes the Baboquivari, Pajarito, Atascosa, Tumacacori, Patagonia, Santa Rita and Huachuca mountain ranges in Arizona; the Peloncillo Mountains that straddle the Arizona/New Mexico border; and the northern tip of the San Luis Mountains in New Mexico’s “bootheel” region.”

Species that have protected areas designated as critical habitat are twice as likely to make progress toward recovery, according to peer-reviewed research, so the protection of these large parcels could be instrumental in the return of jaguars to the lands they once occupied.

According to CBD, protecting these areas is a big step forward for the possible return of the jaguar to their historical habitat, although the designation did not include the Chiricahua Mountains (Arizona) and the Mogollon Rim, near New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, which contain suitable recovery habitat and were historically occupied by jaguars.

“While we’re disappointed that the protection omits the best U.S. habitat for jaguars — the rugged Gila headwaters in New Mexico and the pine-clad Mogollon Rim in Arizona — this decision is a milestone that protects much of the borderlands that the first generation of returning jaguars is exploring and inhabiting.” – Michael Robinson, CBD

The next step for the Fish and Wildlife Service is a draft jaguar recovery plan, which should be released this spring.

[Source: Center for Biological Diversity Image: Flickr Commons]

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