Livestock Industry Sought to Gut Endangered Cats’ Habitat Safeguards
SILVER CITY, N.M.— A U.S. District Court in New Mexico ruled Wednesday against three livestock-industry plaintiffs that sought to eliminate protections for 59,114 acres of critical habitat, designated in 2014 to help recover the state’s endangered jaguars.
The ruling upholds protections under the Endangered Species Act that prevent the federal government from rendering the habitat unusable for jaguars, leaving intact the critical jaguar habitat in the state’s southwestern “bootheel.” An additional 705,093 acres were designated in Arizona but not challenged.
In the case pitting the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and New Mexico Federal Lands Council against defendant U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the court affirmed the Service’s finding that designating the critical habitat is “essential to the conservation of the jaguar species.”
“This is a big win for jaguars to keep living in parts of New Mexico’s remote and rugged borderlands without additional threats to their survival,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The government should have protected far more habitat, including farther north in the vast, wild Gila National Forest, but without the desert country along the border, jaguars would have no chance to even make it farther north.”
The Center intervened on the side of the government in this case. The Center’s previous lawsuits for the jaguar and against the government had resulted in the big cats landing on the U.S. endangered species list in 1997 and receiving critical habitat in 2014. The Center was also the lead plaintiff in a case that led to the Fish and Wildlife Service releasing a draft jaguar recovery plan in December. That plan, which also omits consideration of important recovery habitat farther from the border with Mexico, is expected to be finalized later this year.
Today’s decision preserves the critical habitat designation in the Peloncillo Mountains that straddle the New Mexico-Arizona line and is managed by the Coronado National Forest, and on private lands in the Sierra San Luis a few miles farther east. In 1996 a jaguar was photographed in the Peloncillos, and 10 years later another jaguar was photographed in the San Luis Mountains. Both ranges cross the border with Mexico and can serve as undeveloped travel corridors for a variety of wildlife, including jaguars.
Despite today’s ruling jaguars would still be cut off from habitat in the United States in the event that new fences or walls are erected to supplement the hundreds of miles of border wall that already exist. At present New Mexico’s bootheel region is free of so-called pedestrian barriers, which are impermeable to wildlife much more than to people (and their ladders and tunnels).
“The jaguar is a beautiful animal and a neglected part of our natural heritage in the Southwest,” said Robinson. “Preserving places where jaguars can still cross the border to live once again in their native range has now been found fully legal. But we should go further, preserve bigger chunks of land and take active steps to help the jaguars get here.”
The draft jaguar recovery plan acknowledges that the border must maintain travel corridors to facilitate movement, and the Center recently reported on how jaguars as well as 92 other imperiled species would be drastically harmed by new wall construction. The Center has also filed suit, along with co-plaintiff U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), to require environmental analysis before additional segments of a wall can be erected. The needs of jaguars and the integrity of their critical habitat should be part of that analysis.
Peer-reviewed research shows that species with designated critical habitat are twice as likely to make progress toward recovery as those without.
The third-largest cat in the world after tigers and lions, jaguars are native to North America. Paleontological remains from as far afield as Nebraska and Maryland show that jaguars evolved in today’s United States thousands of years before expanding their range to Central and South America. Apparent jaguars were depicted throughout the U.S. South and Midwest in ancient American Indian art and described in oral histories. Historically jaguars were reported in ecosystems ranging from mountainous Southern California through the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, grasslands in northeastern New Mexico and the Texas panhandle, and even in the disparate forests of Louisiana, Kentucky and North Carolina.
Jaguars disappeared from their U.S. range due to deforestation, draining of wetlands and killing to protect livestock and obtain pelts. The last female jaguar in the United States was shot by a hunter in 1963 at approximately 9,000 feet in elevation in east-central Arizona’s thickly forested Mogollon Rim, which adjoins the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. Although jaguars in Mexico continue to diminish, dispersing jaguars periodically arrive in the United States, including two new animals photographed in southeastern Arizona in the past year.