A full 17 years after being listed as endangered across its entire range, critical habitat was finally designated for the jaguar (Panthera onca) this spring. A total of 764,207 acres in the three southernmost counties in Arizona (Pima, Santa Cruz, and Cochise) and neighboring Hidalgo County in New Mexico fall within the boundaries of the final designation that was released by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) last month.
Critical habitat designation for purposes of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) means that such areas are recognized to contain physical or biological features that are essential to the conservation of the species and therefore may require special management considerations or protection. Critical habitat designation is particularly vital for jaguars, given that there have been no documented females or breeding pairs in the United States for over 50 years.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, these big cats were extirpated from California and Texas, and nearly eradicated from Arizona and New Mexico, in large part due to lethal control to protect livestock. To this day, hounds, neck snares, foot snares, and steel-jaw leghold traps for mountain lion control continue to be used in jaguar habitat. In 2009, during an illegal capture operation, the Arizona Game and Fish Department injured and euthanized a jaguar known as “Macho B” who had lived in the area for at least 16 years.
AWI submitted comments on the habitat proposal in August 2013, supporting the designation but pointing out that both the Jaguar Recovery Outline and the habitat proposal ignored significant portions of the jaguar’s historic range that are essential to the species’ recovery. Historically, jaguars were found in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and possibly as far east as Louisiana.
Connecting large areas is key to conserving the long-term viability of large carnivore populations. AWI specifically recommended that USFWS designate additional protected habitat for jaguars farther north, so as to include all locations where their presence has been documented since the animal’s ESA listing in 1997, including the Chiricahua and Animas Mountains in Arizona and stretches of the Mongollon Rim in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. These additional areas are part of a richly biodiverse region of southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and northwestern Mexico known as Sky Island. Critical habitat recognition over a wider portion of this region would allow for the movement of individuals into adjoining territories and help populations exchange genetic material.
If jaguars are to be truly afforded the chance to thrive as a species, they must be provided space and the opportunity to disperse, while being protected from trapping and exposure to other lethal activities within the critical habitat area. AWI seeks to ensure that these majestic carnivores reclaim their rightful place in this country’s wilderness.