TUCSON, Arizona, January 12, 2010 (ENS) – After years of neglect and indifference, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that it will designate critical habitat for endangered jaguars in the United States and develop a jaguar recovery plan. The Service will propose areas for critical habitat designation by January 2011, according to an announcement in the Federal Register.

The reconsideration of the Bush-era policy was required by a court order in the last of three lawsuits brought since 2004 by the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization based in Tucson.

“With critical habitat designation and a recovery plan, jaguars will have a chance to roam once again through the southwestern lands they’ve inhabited since time immemorial,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Robinson says a critical habitat designation will result in protection for large areas of the Southwest, a region that jaguars used to inhabit but where they are now rarely found.

Jaguars, orange felines with black rosettes, are the third largest cats in the world, after the tiger and the lion, and the largest cat species in the Western Hemisphere. Globally, jaguars are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

An estimated 5,680 jaguars remain in the wild from South America to southern Arizona and New Mexico, with the greatest density in Belize, according to the Federal Register notice.

“The deserts, forests, and mountains of the United States provide important habitat for jaguars, but today’s decision may also help jaguars in Mexico and Central and South America through inspiring other nations to undertake similar conservation actions,” said Robinson.

Under the Bush administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service maintained for years that designation of critical habitat and development of a recovery plan were not “prudent” because so much of the jaguar’s range occurs outside the United States, although both actions are required by the Endangered Species Act.

On March 30, 2009, a federal judge rejected both of these positions and ordered the Service to reconsider designation of critical habitat and development of a recovery plan, resulting in today’s decision.

“We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended, have reconsidered our prudency determination concerning the designation of critical habitat for the jaguar (Panthera onca) and now find that designation of critical habitat is prudent,” the Service announced today.

In 1972, the jaguar was listed as endangered under the precursor to the Endangered Species Act. At that time, the jaguar was believed to be extinct in the United States, so the jaguar was only included on the foreign species list.

On July 22, 1997, the Service published a final listing rule that extended endangered status for the jaguar into the United States but determined critical habitat designation “was not prudent.” In today’s announcement the Service explained that because the greatest threat to the jaguar was from individuals killing them, publishing “detailed critical habitat maps and descriptions in the Federal Register would likely make the species more vulnerable…”

Since then, documentation of specific and general locations of jaguar sightings have been posted online by the Jaguar Conservation Team, Arizona Game and Fish Department nonprofit groups and others, the Service decided disclosure of their locations would not make jaguars more vulnerable.

But, pushed by another lawsuit from the Center, the Service again agreed to reconsider its “not prudent” decision by July, 2006. Then the federal agency found “no areas in the United States meet the definition of critical habitat and, as a result, designation of critical habitat for the jaguar would not be beneficial to the species.”

Today, the Service reversed that policy.

From 1996 through 2009, four or possibly five male jaguars have been documented in the United States. Of those, two jaguars were photographed in 1996: one in the Peloncillo Mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border and another in the Baboquivari Mountains of southern Arizona. In February 2006, a third jaguar was observed and photographed in Hidalgo County, New Mexico. Camera traps caught one and possibly two more on tape. No females or kittens were found.

A recovery plan for the jaguar will provide a road map for recovery of jaguars to the United States, whether through natural migration or reintroduction, said Robinson.

Today’s decision is a setback for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which Robinson says has advocated for greater authority over jaguar management and against development of a recovery plan and designation of critical habitat.

On February 18, 2009, Arizona Game and Fish officials snared Macho B, the last jaguar known in the United States, while conducting an operation that targeted cougars and black bears but was reportedly baited with jaguar scat.

Two weeks later Macho B was dead and the animal’s death is currently the subject of a federal criminal investigation.

Once caught in the snare, Macho B was fitted with a satellite tracking collar, the first jaguar to be collared, and then the animal was released. That day the Arizona agency said, “Field biologists’ assessment shows the cat appeared to be healthy and hardy.”

On March 2, the collared jaguar was recaptured and transported to the Phoenix Zoo for medical attention after wildlife officials concluded the health of the animal may be “in jeopardy.”

That same day the animal was euthanized after veterinarians determined it was “in severe and unrecoverable kidney failure.” The decision was made in consultations between officials from the state and federal agency and the Phoenix Zoo.

A necropsy was conducted by zoo veterinarians immediately after the cat’s death but it found nothing unexpected for an older jaguar except a smaller than usual bladder.

Robinson says that “rather than investigate, the state agency quickly downplayed capture as a factor and ordered the jaguar skinned in lieu of conducting a comprehensive necropsy.”

“A science-based recovery team is needed to ensure that jaguar research is conducted in a safe manner, and should be a necessary precursor to any further capture of jaguars,” said Robinson. “In other words, we support a complete ban on jaguar capture until there is oversight by a recovery team.”

“With today’s decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reasserting its authority over jaguar management,” said Robinson. “Given mismanagement of the jaguar by Arizona Game and Fish, including the death of Macho B, today’s decision is a welcome turn toward real, meaningful protection.”

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