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"?
Jaguar Boondoggle?
Tony Povilitis
Tony Povilitis
Jan 28, 2010 02:31 PM
Alan Rabinowitz’s opposition to critical habitat designation for the jaguar in the U.S. is not anchored in science. The Arizona jaguar known as Macho B had an exceptionally long life before he was killed by game officials, a fact consistent with recent habitat assessments indicating the Southwest holds promise for jaguar recovery.

What doesn’t Rabinowitz understand about why jaguars disappeared? Jaguars were decimated by hunting and predator extermination campaigns. Historically they lived in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, with some reports as far north as Colorado and east to the Ohio Valley and the Appalachian Mountains.

Rabinowitz, who studied jaguars in the tropics where their densities are highest, seems to have fallen into the trap of opposing their recovery in less optimal habitats. I can understand how that can happen. For years I studied the endangered huemul, a medium-sized deer of the Andes that once ranged over a broad stretch of the Andes. Had I began my research on the huemul in lush Patagonia instead of central Chile, I might have dismissed Chile’s efforts to recover the species in that drier region, where a small, peripheral population struggles to survive. On the other hand, I’m puzzled as to why Rabinowitz seems oblivious to studies suggesting the ecological and evolutionary importance of species conservation across varied environments.

As for jaguar efforts by the US Fish & Wildlife Service siphoning funds from foreign jaguar populations and other endangered species, the logic is not at all persuasive. In fact, the opposite may be true. A federal program to restore jaguars where Americans live will likely heighten interest in jaguar and endangered species conservation in general.

Moreover, a genuine recovery program for the far-roaming jaguar would help protect and restore habitat linkages, the integrity of our wild lands, and habitat connectivity between the US and Mexico. These actions will surely benefit other endangered species and biodiversity conservation as a whole.

Jaguar boondogle?
Jan 29, 2010 04:48 PM
Rabinowitz's falls into the trap of treating conservation of a zero sum game: if jaguars are protected in the U.S. it will divert attention from conservation efforts in South America. Luckily, that is not how things work politically or budgetarily. If anything, development of a recovery plan will spur further interest in jaguars everywhere, and quite likely, will expressly include protection and expansion of the northern Mexico population as well.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should be commended for agreeing to convene a team of jaguar scientists to painstakingly determine the species needs. It is nothing short of bizarre that Rabinowitz is so certain of his own view that he opposes the development of a scientific recovery team with diverse expertises and opinions.

Meanwhile, if the jagaur's habitat is not protected, including preventing further construction of border walls preventing migration between the U.S. and Mexico, recovery will not be possible. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should be supported in its decision to finally take this issue on.
jaguars on the fence
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick
Feb 03, 2010 09:50 PM
I understand the point Mr. Rabinowitz is trying to make, even if he is alienating and angering other conservationists in the process. Species recovery funds are limited, and generating goodwill from jaguar advocates is not going to put more money in the pockets of the USFWS, even if it should. While it's acknowledged that jaguar recovery - if it's tenable at all - will require a concerted, expensive and uphill battle, many other creatures (like the black-footed ferret) would almost certainly bounce back if given a fighting chance. It's true that the ferret's major obstacle is political, but it and many other non-charismatic creatures could have an almost certain for much less investment, which would have the benefits of recovering more species for less money, as well as currying public favor by making a difference in biodiversity.

The situation reminds me of the problems posed by CA condor recovery - a project undertaken with monumental expenses of money and time, and one to which the USFWS (and the public) is likely to indentured for a very long time, due to the ecological obstacles (i.e. lead shot and power lines) that may forever keep condors from becoming autonomous.

Habitat linkages are an essential, enlightened idea, but they're also very expensive, and they will require more of a mandate than is afforded by the conservation of a single species. If the goal of a recovery effort is to recover a species - not the greater ecosystem - than the USFWS's money would be better spent elsewhere. Better yet: end a war or two, give the surplus to the DOI, and we can have it all.
NY Times "Letter to the Editor" in response to Rabinowitz piece
Pat Massard
Pat Massard
Feb 04, 2010 06:35 AM
The NY Times printed a letter to the editor from Sergio Avila, wildlife biologist in charge of the Northern Mexico Conservation Program for the Sky Island Alliance in Tucson (

"Listed as an endangered species in 1997 under the Endangered Species Act, the jaguar has lacked a federally mandated recovery plan. Management of the jaguar was relegated to the wildlife departments of Arizona and New Mexico, which formed the Jaguar Conservation Team. The death last year of Macho B, the last known jaguar in the Southwest, highlighted the team’s lack of vision for a long-term recovery plan.

The protection of jaguar habitat benefits less charismatic endangered species as well. Sky Island Alliance and its partners have proposed habitat protection through wilderness designation. Representative Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona has introduced a bill in Congress to protect more than 80,000 acres of public land in southern Arizona."