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Save the jaguar

A federal recovery plan is needed to restore the cats in areas of the U.S.

March 18, 2009|James William Gibson | James William Gibson is a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and the author of the forthcoming book, "A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature."

They used to roam a wide swath of the Southwest, from California through Texas, but in recent years the known jaguar population of the United States had dwindled to one: Macho B Jaguar.

In 1996, the large cat was discovered to be living in the mountains of southern Arizona near the Mexican border by a hunter, who managed to photograph him. In the years that followed, Macho B's movements were occasionally captured by a network of motion-triggered cameras placed in the mountainous areas he favored.

In February, the cat was accidentally trapped by Arizona Fish and Game Department officials, who fitted him with a radio collar in order to better track his movements. By the end of the month, they noticed that Macho B was no longer regularly foraging for food, and soon he was recaptured southwest of Tucson. Veterinarians discovered advanced kidney failure -- possibly accelerated by the stress of capture and sedation -- and decided to euthanize him, leaving the country with no known jaguars.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, naturalists wrote about many encounters with jaguars. In their 1854 book, "The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America," John James Audubon and John Bachman described the patience with which a jaguar waited for its prey at a watering hole. And then, "the unsuspecting creature draws near the dangerous spot; suddenly, with a tremendous leap, the jaguar pounces on him, and with the fury of an incarnate fiend fastens upon his neck with his terrible teeth."

But by the middle of the 20th century, the animals, the third-largest species of cats after lions and tigers, had mostly disappeared. Reduced habitat and prey made survival increasingly difficult. And men found glory in killing them -- part of the long, brutal war against predators that nearly exterminated wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears.

By all rights, the Endangered Species Act, established in 1973, should have protected the jaguar. But although the cats were listed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service never formulated a recovery plan for them or delineated "critical habitat," meaning a designated territory in which development was subject to regulation for potential impacts. Indeed, officials have argued for 30 years that because only isolated jaguars existed, the species could not recover and thus the jaguar had no legal right to critical habitat.

The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity has repeatedly challenged this interpretation, saying it's a wrongheaded reading of the endangered species law. Jaguars would recover in the U.S., the center insisted, if the animals were fully protected by all the measures the act mandates.

The center's argument -- and it is a good one -- is that jaguars should have been managed aggressively, as were other animals that had been nearly extirpated from the wild. The California condor, the black ferret, the Rocky Mountain and Mexican gray wolves were all brought back through intensive federal intervention. Now it's time for wildlife officials to create a recovery team for the jaguar.

Scientists should assess whether there are ways to encourage "transient" jaguars, which are known to move back and forth across the border, to instead stay in the U.S. and reproduce, or to deliberately translocate them (the way gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park). A recovery plan also could designate crucial habitat, such as the Sky Island region of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico and the Gila National Forest. They could even recommend U.S. aid to help protect jaguar territory in Mexico.

Thirty years ago, in the New York Times, Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote that "the one truly irreparable damage we can inflict on ourselves is eliminating a large fraction of the Earth's species.

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