Jaguars will get 1,194 square miles of protected habitat in southern Arizona and New Mexico under a plan finalized this week by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
This designated "critical habitat" will be set aside as the result of a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity contending the USFWS was legally bound to designate territory for the endangered species, which has maintained a toehold in the region. Two male jaguars are known to have lived in the area in the past decade. One was sighted recently in the Santa Rita Mountains in the last few years. Another one was injured by Arizona wildlife officials in 2009 and had to be euthanized.
Jaguars, the third largest wild cat in the world, virtually disappeared from the US as they lost habitat and were hunted by ranchers. The last female jaguar in the US was killed in 1963, but periodically males have been sighted in the US desert Southwest, which was once just a portion of the jaguars much-wider range that extended as far as forests in North Carolina.
It is believed that male jaguars may reestablish themselves in the US Southwest as some males range away from the protected Northern Jaguar Reserve in Mexico, just 130 miles south of the border.
"Welcome home, American jaguar," said the Center's Michael Robinson, who's been working on the jaguar case. "I'm hopeful that decades from now we'll look back on this historic decision and see it as the first on-the-ground action that eventually led to the return of a thriving population of these beautiful big cats to this country."
In a statement, the CBD explained that the designation means federal agencies cannot "adversely" modify or destroy the protected areas by granting permits for mining or other commercial activities. This means a jaguar living on US Forest Service land in the Santa Rita Mountains outside Tucson should be protected, even though the area has been proposed for a copper mine.
The new protected area takes in six areas that encompass mountain ranges where jaguars have been spotted recently: the the Baboquivari, Pajarito, Atascosa, Tumacacori, Patagonia, Santa Rita and Huachuca mountain ranges in Arizona; the Peloncillo Mountains that straddle the Arizona/New Mexico border; and the northern tip of the San Luis Mountains in New Mexico's "bootheel" region.
The Center was disappointed that the designation excluded the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona and stretches of the Mogollon Rim near the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, historic jaguar territory that remains suitable for the animals today.
Still, the decision is "a milestone that protects much of the borderlands that the first generation of returning jaguars is exploring and inhabiting," said Robinson.
Peer-reviewed research shows that species with critical habitat protections are twice as likely to make a recovery as those without, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, a national non-profit with more than 675,000 members.