Jaguars Keep Protected Habitat in US Southwest

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (CN) — More than 760,000 acres in Arizona and New Mexico will remain protected habitat for the jaguar, despite New Mexico ranchers’ objections, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

The New Mexico Farm & Livestock Bureau and other ranching groups sued the Department of the Interior in May 2015, challenging the designation of critical habitat for under the Endangered Species Act.

They claimed that the 764,207 acres of designated habitat in Arizona and New Mexico was more than needed for the jaguars’ secondary habitat, and that all the designated habitat in New Mexico was privately owned grazing land, whose designation would hurts ranchers financially.

But U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales on Wednesday found the secondary habitat important enough to preserve, and denied the ranchers’ request for an injunction.

Most American jaguars live in tropical rain forests of Central and South America. However, “at the northernmost portion of the jaguar’s range, a small population has adapted to occupy more arid forest and open grass ecosystems,” Gonzales found. “This includes a breeding population of resident jaguars in Sonora, Mexico as well as individual jaguars in the Southwestern United States. The ecosystems in the United States are considered suitable only as a secondary habitat, which has little to no evidence of reproduction but which may provide important dispersal habitat for the species.”

The ranchers claimed that the U.S. habitats were unnecessary, and habitat preservation “could be achieved simply by preserving the breeding population 130 miles south of the United States-Mexico border, which has adapted to surviving in an arid ecosystem similar to the units in the American Southwest.”

But the co-defendant U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argued that “populations at the outer periphery of the jaguars’ range possess genetic and demographic diversity which allow them to inhabit the distinct arid environments of its secondary habitat, a key component for adaptability which ensures the species’ survival.”

Fish and Wildlife said the small populations of jaguars in the U.S. Southwest are “critical to the species survival precisely because they are adapted to exist outside the jaguars’ core habitat.”

The two sides disagreed about what constitutes an area being “occupied” by a species, given that there have been only a handful of jaguar sightings in Arizona and New Mexico in the past 20 years.

But Gonzales said the Endangered Species Act allows designation of critical habitat even if the area is not occupied by the listed species, if the land is considered “essential for the conservation of the species.”

Plaintiffs included the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association and the New Mexico Federal Lands Council.

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