Michael Robinson believes the Fish and Wildlife Service's biological opinion on jaguars and the border fence is laughable. "It was essentially a whitewash of the magnitude of the impact that the wall is going to have," says Robinson. "It's an abdication by Fish and Wildlife. They couldn't deny the obvious, that this thing is going to block jaguars. But they failed to analyze it in the context of further extension of the wall, which is clearly where they're headed. They've said recovery is not possible in the U.S., but they've done no studies to indicate that that's true."
The Center for Biological Diversity has long sparred with the government over Endangered Species Act enforcement. On Aug. 2, it filed a lawsuit alleging the Fish and Wildlife Service has flouted the act by refusing to designate critical habitat for the jaguar and create a recovery plan. Critical habitat designations bar the federal government from authorizing any activities that "adversely affect" an endangered animal or plant.
Fish and Wildlife's Humphrey declined to comment on the critical habitat issue, citing the litigation. A 2006 agency news release announcing its refusal to designate critical habitat characterized the jaguar's U.S. range as "marginal" and a minuscule portion of its historic homeland. The release concluded that a critical habitat designation was "not prudent."
The jaguar was not officially listed as endangered until 1997, after the two males were photographed in Arizona (and after the Fish and Wildlife Service was sued over the issue). That year, the Arizona and New Mexico game and fish departments set up a multi-agency Jaguar Conservation Team. The organization encompasses federal and state wildlife and land-management agencies as well as a disparate cast of private conservation groups, including the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project. The Conservation Team's stated goal is to manage the jaguar in the U.S. and encourage habitat protection on both sides of the border.
The Center for Biological Diversity created a map of potential critical habitat for jaguars in New Mexico and Arizona. The map, which Robinson says is based on the Jaguar Conservation Team's own criteria, identifies tens of millions of acres of suitable ground. Essentially, the shaded map comprises about a third of both states.
"People forgot it was a native species," Robinson says. "Now the Fish and Wildlife Service says it can't recover the jaguar. It's a disingenuous stance for an agency that spent so much time and so many resources extirpating the jaguar in North America."
He cites a memoir on file at the Smithsonian Institution in which a government predator-control agent writes of "what I believe to be the first jaguar taken by a Government hunter - I believe in December 1918, following his brief detail to the Mt. Baldy region in the Santa Rita Mountains" south of Tucson.
Robinson, whose group has a member on the Jaguar Conservation Team's habitat subcommittee, says the team's 1997 charter specifically pledged to facilitate protection of jaguar habitat. "In the 10 years since, they've coordinated the protection of exactly zero acres of jaguar habitat," says Robinson, who derisively refers to the group as the "Jaguar Conversation Team."
But there are divisions among groups advocating on behalf of jaguars, and critical habitat is an especially sore point for the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project. McCain says a critical-habitat designation would be counterproductive, imposing limits on land usage, including grazing, and in the process enraging ranchers.
Ranchers on both sides of the border are cooperating to help preserve the jaguar, McCain says, and some have welcomed cameras on their land. Many in Arizona have pledged not to kill a jaguar, even if one takes or threatens their livestock. He notes that an Arizona rancher who lost a calf to a jaguar was fully compensated from a fund set up for that purpose. A critical habitat designation, on the other hand, might encourage cattlemen to kill a jaguar rather than report its presence and face more rigorous regulation of their land or grazing allotment.
"A critical habitat designation is going to do far more harm than good for jaguar habitat. It makes enemies of the people you need to rely on," says McCain, who concedes that the Center for Biological Diversity does a good job of "keeping government agencies honest." But he complains, "Some of these (conservation) groups have created a lot of animosities with local people. They really want to cooperate with local people, but it's only on their terms.
"The habitat argument is a tool for the center to get rid of grazing in the Southwest."
Robinson says the center abhors current grazing practices on public lands but has no wish to abolish grazing altogether. He does, however, believe that livestock interests have unduly influenced the Jaguar Conservation Team. "Our stance on grazing is that it should not preclude the presence of any native species, that it should not pollute waterways, and it should not cost the public any money," Robinson says. "If the livestock industry is going to step up and meet those standards, it's OK with us."