Will an elusive cat evade federal listing?

  • Jaguar

    copyright Robin Silver Photography

When a southern Arizona rancher recently cornered a black-spotted beast the likes of which he'd never seen before, he shot it with his camera. Turns out he'd found a jaguar - the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere and an animal that's been seen north of the Mexican border only a handful of times in the last 25 years (HCN, 11/11/96).

The jaguar's presence has rekindled a long-standing debate over how to best protect the rare and elusive creatures. Many say a place on the endangered species list will provide the best protection. But two states are attempting to head off a listing with a newly crafted "conservation agreement" they hope will persuade local authorities, ranchers and landowners to protect the big cats.

The two approaches are headed for a collision. On April 1, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must decide whether the jaguar deserves protection under the act. The deadline results from a lawsuit brought last year by the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity.

No one disputes that the jaguar is imperiled. But "listing is not a panacea," says Terry Johnson, chief of endangered species programs for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "One of the easiest things to do is invoke the big hammer of the Endangered Species Act and then walk away from it."

Arizona and New Mexico propose five years of monitoring and information-gathering by a "strictly voluntary" jaguar conservation team made up of government agencies and private landowners. The states' plan is popular with ranchers who fear that a listing would lead to land-use restrictions that could curtail their ability to control predators and graze cattle.

Critics say the conservation plan is a paper tiger. It suggests, but would not implement, for example, stiffer penalties for killing a jaguar. Under current laws, the fine is $750, while a jaguar pelt brings $6,000 to $12,000 on the black market, says Bruce Palmer, an ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Under the Endangered Species Act, the fine could be as high as $50,000 plus a year in jail.

Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, says the jaguar meets four out of five biological criteria for an endangered listing. The cat is already listed in Mexico, he notes, and federal officials acknowledge that only an oversight kept the species off the list back in 1979.

As for those concerned about the potential restrictions on their land if a jaguar were to move in, "We're not talking about critical habitat," Suckling said. "We're talking about listing the jaguar."

* Danielle Desruisseaux, HCN intern

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