In Teddy Roosevelt’s day jaguars roamed from the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona to New Mexico’s Rio Grande and across much of southern Texas. But following decades of persecution by hunters and government predator control agents, native jaguars vanished from the United States.
In recent years, a handful of intrepid male jaguars like “Macho B” and “El Jefe” have returned to the U.S., traveling north from Mexico and settling in southern Arizona. Their presence shows there is ample natural prey like white-tailed deer and peccary.
But to recover this icon of the Southwest, male jaguars need female mates to have jaguar cubs on U.S. soil again.
The last female was killed in 1963
The last known female was killed in the White Mountains of Arizona in 1963. The long journey to the U.S., while possible for some males, seems to present a difficult obstacle for females, who by nature are less willing to cross the risky terrain of the borderlands.
Peter Warshall, an ecologist and long-term science coordinator for the Northern Jaguar Project, calculated that it could take many decades before a female jaguar reaches the U.S. border. Without help from biologists, lonely males now in the U.S. may never see a potential mate.
The obvious solution is for biologists to bring in females from south of the border. Yet Fish and Wildlife Service’s draft recovery plan does not mention this option.
Why won’t feds move jaguars? It’s unclear
But the Fish and Wildlife Service has demonstrated a longstanding lack of commitment to U.S. jaguar recovery.
Although it granted foreign jaguars full protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1975, the agency did not protect U.S. jaguars until 1997.
It then dragged its feet for nearly another 20 years and did not designate critical habitat or develop a recovery plan for jaguars until Defenders of Wildlife and its conservation partners pressured the agency in federal court.
Now the species faces prospect of a wall
In December 2016, the agency finally released a draft jaguar recovery plan. In addition to having no plans for female jaguar translocation, the Fish and Wildlife Service dismissed millions of acres of habitat north of Interstate 10, where the U.S jaguar population could potentially reach 200 or more. This combination of omissions is a one-two knockout punch for U.S. jaguar recovery.
Now U.S. jaguars face the prospect of an impenetrable border wall. If the Trump administration physically seals the border, no jaguars will be able to reach the U.S. on their own, causing them to vanish from the U.S. likely forever.
The Fish and Wildlife Service must uphold the spirit of the ESA and open its eyes to the options of reintroducing female jaguars and expanding the recovery area so the big cats can roam here once again. These steps are needed to save the jaguar and reaffirm our country’s commitment to wildlife conservation.
Rob Peters is a senior Southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, leading on the organization’s efforts on jaguar recovery. Tony Povilitis is the president and director of Life Net Nature. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.