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Jaguar's road to recovery unmapped




Some Native American cultures attribute divine power and magical stealth to the American jaguar -- traits that could come in handy now that the endangered cat won’t be getting a federal recovery plan.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in mid-January that creating a recovery plan for borderland jaguars would “not be sensible.”


Under the Endangered Species Act, a recovery plan is required for any listed plant or animal, unless the agency decides, as in the jaguar’s case, that a plan “will not promote the conservation of the species.”


Fish and Wildlife claims that the jaguar’s Arizona and New Mexico habitat -- and the four male cats known to prowl in the region -- are not critical to the overall survival of the species, whose range extends from Arizona to northern Argentina. The four males are thought to be members of a core Mexican population 130 miles south of the border, where recovery efforts are also under way.


The recovery of U.S. jaguar populations depends solely on the health of those Mexican populations, says Bill Van Pelt of the Arizona Department of Game and Fish. “We could do everything in the world in the U.S. to help the jaguar and that will not save it,” he says. “If (the Mexican) population winks out, the odds of jaguars surviving in the U.S. are very, very, very low.”


Other experts argue for the importance of the U.S. jaguar population. The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity sued the agency last year for neither developing a recovery plan nor designating critical habitat. And in June 2007, over 500 members of the American Society of Mammalogists, an organization of professional scientists, unanimously passed a resolution asking the Fish and Wildlife Service for a recovery plan and critical habitat, which the society says is essential for the species’ survival.


The Fish and Wildlife Service is overlooking the fact that substantial populations of jaguars once roamed North America, says Joe Cook, a member of the society and biologist at the University of New Mexico. “Fish and Wildlife claims we only have peripheral males here, but that just doesn’t hold water,” he says. “The U.S. needs to take a lead role in conservation efforts of the jaguar. If we don’t, how much pressure is on other countries to help the jaguar?”


With border fencing projects already slicing into the big cat’s range, Cook believes U.S. jaguar recovery interests will collide with homeland security. “The big looming issue is the borderland fence,” says Cook. “Once you cut and fragment range, you’ve basically got a huge threat to north and south populations.”


Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity compares the jaguar’s plight to that of the gray wolf, which had significant populations in Canada and but much smaller populations in the U.S. before reintroduction efforts began in the Northern Rockies.


“If the administration had applied this same logic to gray wolves, we wouldn’t have a single wolf in Yellowstone right now,” he says. “If this is allowed to stand, it sets a terrible precedent. These kinds of issues will come up over and over again, because animals don’t recognize political borders.”