Federal Officials Deny Proposal For The Reintroduction Of Endangered Jaguars Back Into The Southwestern United States

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has rejected a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to reintroduce jaguars to the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The largest cat in the Americas was first protected by the Endangered Species Act more than 50 years ago, but due to federal inaction, only eight individual jaguars have been documented in the United States in nearly three decades.

“This is a heartbreaking example of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s continued failure to take proactive steps to bring jaguars back to their native range,” said Laiken Jordahl, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Federal officials should be aiding jaguar recovery, not making excuses that justify their continued inaction. Jaguars belong in the United States, and we won’t stop fighting to protect and recover these magnificent cats.”

In a letter to the Center received last week, the Fish and Wildlife Service said “recovery of the species could be achieved without the presence of jaguars in the Gila National Forest.”

This rationale ignores numerous jaguar experts who authored a groundbreaking study declaring 20 million acres in Arizona and New Mexico, including the Gila National Forest, suitable habitat for a breeding population of jaguars.

Returning jaguars to the American Southwest would help save the largely isolated jaguars in northwestern Mexico, who have low genetic diversity. Climate change also adds urgency for jaguars to be able to expand their range to the north.

The Center’s petition also called for expanding jaguar critical habitat in New Mexico and Arizona, including areas that would facilitate safe cross-border movements between the United States and Mexico.

The Service’s letter said expanding jaguar critical habitat would be evaluated separately from their reintroduction. It also said rejecting proposed reintroduction “does not preclude our taking such action in the future,” leaving the door open for the agency to reverse course.

Earlier this month, Center for Biological Diversity experts determined that trail camera footage of a jaguar in southern Arizona was a new cat not previously identified in the state.

“The presence of a new jaguar in Arizona’s wilderness proves these cats are capable of a historic comeback, but full recovery requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to take meaningful action,” said Jordahl. “The Service is abandoning its responsibility to recover jaguars in the Southwest, and we’re not about to let that stand.”

Jaguars are the third-largest big cat species in the world after tigers and lions. They once lived throughout the American Southwest, with historical records on the Southern Rim of the Grand Canyon. Jaguars also lived in the mountains of Southern California and as far east as Louisiana. Ancient jaguar bones show that jaguars evolved in the U.S. before expanding their range to Central and South America.

Jaguars virtually disappeared from the United States over the past 150 years, primarily due to habitat loss and historic government predator control programs intended to protect the livestock industry.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first listed jaguars as endangered in 1972, but in 1980, the Service removed jaguars from the endangered species list. In 1997, in response to a Center campaign, jaguars were again protected as endangered. In 2014, the Center secured federally protected critical habitat for U.S. jaguar recovery.

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