Big cat boondoggle?

 

Alan Rabinowitz might be the last person you’d expect to denounce the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent decision to designate critical habitat for jaguars. Rabinowitz was instrumental in creating the world’s first jaguar preserve in Belize in the eighties. He’s the head honcho of Panthera, an organization with the "sole mission" of protecting wild cats around the world. He's the kind of guy National Geographic makes documentaries about.

But in yesterday’s New York Times, Rabinowitz boldly called the critical habitat decision "a slap in the face to good science." Rabinowitz’s basic argument is that jaguar habitat in the Southwest is marginal "at best." He says conservation efforts would be more effectively directed south of the border, where "thousands of jaguars live and breed in their true critical habitat." This is the same line of reasoning Fish and Wildlife officials followed in years past when they refused to designate habitat or draft a recovery plan for the big cats (See our 2008 story, "Jaguar's road to recovery unmapped," and 2007 story, "Cat Fight on the Border"). But now, Rabinowitz makes this provocative point: Jaguar critical habitat could be bad for the Endangered Species Act. Here’s his explanation:

The recent move by the Fish and Wildlife Service means that the sparse federal funds devoted to protecting wild animals will be wasted on efforts that cannot help save jaguars. It also stands to weaken the Endangered Species Act, because if critical habitat is redefined as any place where a species might ever have existed, and where you or I might want it to exist again, then the door is open for many other senseless efforts to bring back long-lost creatures.

The Fish and Wildlife officials whose job it is to protect the country’s wild animals need to grow a stronger backbone — stick with their original, correct decision and save their money for more useful preservation work. Otherwise, when funds are needed to preserve all those small, ugly, non-charismatic endangered species at the back of the line, there may be no money left.

Reporter Tim Steller of the Arizona Star notes in his blog that Rabinowitz has dismissed the importance of the Southwest's disparate jaguars to worldwide populations for some time. He also has this counterpoint:

Rabinowitz refers to [the environmental groups that sued to force the critical habitat designation] as "well-intentioned" then slaps them with this line: "Apparently, they want jaguars to repopulate the United States even if jaguars don’t want to."

That seems a rather fatalistic view of preserving species in general, doesn't it? You could say about any endangered species that they "don't want to" repopulate their previous habitat, when in many cases the problem is that we people are preventing them. What if he had said "they want bald eagles to repopulate the United States even if eagles don't want to"?