For Immediate Release
Conservationists request new evaluation of predator control threats to jaguars
A coalition of ten southwestern conservation organizations sent a letter today to the southwestern regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requesting the re-initiation of formal consultation over the impacts of government predator control operations on the endangered jaguar.
The consultation, under authority of Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, is needed because a 1999 consultation and the ensuing Biological Opinion produced by Fish and Wildlife Service is based on out-of-date information on jaguar movements in the United States, and because the federal predator killing agency, Wildlife Services/Animal Damage Control, based in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, failed to produce maps of occupied jaguar habitat that were required under that Biological Opinion as guidance to what type of killing techniques are allowed in what areas.
Such maps were specified in the Biological Opinion as a condition for continuation of actions that may inadvertently kill jaguars.
Jaguars were originally exterminated from the United States by the USDA Animal Damage Control agency (which until 1985 was the same as the Fish and Wildlife Service) and by individual ranchers and non-governmental predator hunters. The last female jaguar confirmed in the United States was killed in 1963 in southeastern Arizona in the region where Mexican gray wolves now roam. Male jaguars are thought to roam further than females in establishing new territories, and thus the 1963 animal was likely the last to be born in the wild in the United States.
Encouragingly, during the 1990s jaguars have been photographed north of the U.S.-Mexico border and additional animals have been spotted relatively distant from the border in and near the Gila National Forest of New Mexico. Three of those reports in the Gila have been accepted by the interagency Jaguar Conservation Team as "Class II" records, defined as observations made by a reliable observer and/or accompanied by physical evidence.
The June 22, 1999 Biological Opinion prohibits neck snares and M-44 sodium-cyanide traps within occupied habitat of jaguars. It also requires that leghold traps be rubber-padded and relatively small (#3 Victor or smaller) within a larger region defined as occupied range of jaguars. But that range does not extend as far north as the Gila -- because none of the Gila sightings had been evaluated by wildlife agencies.
The 1999 Biological Opinion also required Wildlife Services/Animal Damage Control to develop maps, based on criteria described within the Biological Opinion, delineating occupied habitat. But in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for Biological Diversity, the WS/ADC acknowledged not having developed such maps.
"Without these maps, occupied habitat cannot be ascertained," according to today's letter to Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director H. Dale Hall. "And because these maps do not exist, USDA has failed to adhere to the more restrictive provisions specified for occupied habitat, since the Wildlife Services/Animal Damage Control agency has not identified where precisely such provisions apply, yet continues to broadly use locally proscribed techniques."
Furthermore, information evaluated by the interagency Jaguar Conservation Team indicates that occupied range of the jaguar actually extends beyond the areas identified in the 1999 Biological Opinion. On this basis, the conservationists' letter makes the case for expanding the region in which these limited protections for jaguars are supposed to prevail.
Both the lack of up-to-date information, and the failure to abide by the conditions of the previous Biological Opinion are legal grounds for requiring a new one.
The first of the Class II sightings in the Gila was an August 25, 1990 observation by New Mexico Highlands University biology professor Gerald Jacobi, Ph.D., and his wife Donna Jacobi (who had studied mammalogy in graduate school), in Sierra County north of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in clear daylight at two dozen yards. They immediately reported the sighting to the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, but no investigation was undertaken.
A 1998 observation by local rural residents near the San Francisco River in Catron County has also been determined to be a Class II sighting, as was a 1999 observation by a Silver City high school biology teacher returning from a hunting trip in the Burro Mountains in Grant County, who came back the next day and obtained a plaster cast of a large feline paw print. The cast was not definitive, and the New Mexico Game and Fish Department at the time failed to follow the protocol of the Jaguar Conservation Team (of which it is a party) to follow up with dogs and identify whether the cat was a mountain lion or jaguar.
The jaguar was listed as an endangered species in the U.S. in 1997 due to litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity that required the Fish and Wildlife Service to act on a 1992 technical petition requesting the listing, that the federal agency had ignored. The Fish and Wildlife Service had listed the jaguar as endangered under the 1969 predecessor law to the Endangered Species Act, but had stripped it of protections north of the border in 1973, vowing to correct this "oversight" and yet failing to do so.
Even after being compelled to list the jaguar as endangered in 1997, in contravention to the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service then refused to designate critical habitat and develop a jaguar recovery plan. Last month, the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife settled another lawsuit with the Fish and Wildlife Service in which the federal agency agreed to re-evaluate by July 3, 2006 its opposition to critical habitat designation. At that time, the conservationist plaintiffs will determine whether additional litigation is necessary to secure critical habitat and a recovery plan for the species.
"Federal predator control was a principal cause of the jaguar's extermination from the Southwest," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, in Pinos Altos, New Mexico, near the Gila National Forest. "The Fish and Wildlife Service must ensure that this generation of jaguars gets a better chance at survival than their predecessors."