Saving El Jefe: A Jaguar Versus an Open Pit Copper Mine

El Jefe, one of the few wild jaguars in the United States. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – Prowling through the Santa Rita Mountains about 65 miles southeast of Tucson, the jaguar named El Jefe by the locals makes his home in the mountainous region. For five years, it was believed El Jefe was the only wild jaguar living in the United States.

Jaguars like El Jefe used to be numerous in the American Southwest, but they slowly began to disappear as their habitats were lost to human development and hunters who feared for their livestock.

The largest wild cat in the Western Hemisphere is starting to make a comeback though, driven by its endangered species protected status brought about grudgingly by the government following a series of lawsuits.

Now, amid the approval of an open pit copper mine, the jaguar’s habitat may be in danger from mining waste.

In a federal complaint filed Wednesday, environmental groups say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated numerous federal laws and regulations when it approved a Clean Water Act permit for a copper mine in southern Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains, threatening to upend El Jefe and the surrounding wildlife.

Earlier this month, the Corps issued a Clean Water Act permit for the mine. After a decade-long quest, Canadian company Hudbay Minerals now has the final approval to start construction on the planned mile-wide pit. The company plans to stack millions of tons of rock from the pit outside the mine, which will be on the eastern flank of the mountain range about 40 miles north of the Mexican border.

Those mountains of mine waste, called tailings, will fill in two valuable riparian canyons in a place where such seasonal streams are rare and obliterate habitat for a variety of wildlife, says a federal lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, Sierra Club and the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition.

“The Corps has … ignored and refused to consider the direct impacts to Wasp and Barrel Canyons and downstream Davidson Canyon from the contaminated runoff and seepage from the waste rock and tailings facilities, and failed to consider or protect against the indirect, cumulative, and/or secondary impacts to environmental, wildlife, and cultural resources that will be severely impacted, if not destroyed or eliminated altogether,” the complaint states.

The EPA and even Corps scientists, in a 2016 review by the Corps Los Angeles District, said it should not be allowed, because it violates the National Environmental Protection Act and Environmental Protection Agency and Corps of Engineers regulations.

“In spite of reports from multiple government agencies that the proposed Rosemont Mine does not comply with federal law, the Army Corps of Engineers has chosen to grant the federal Clean Water Act 404 permit,” said Gayle Hartmann, president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, a local nonprofit created to fight the mine. “We have no choice but to seek justice in federal court in support of our community, our health and our environment.”

The mine and tailings piles would cover roughly 5,000 acres, mostly on Coronado National Forest. The groups claim the Corps didn’t adequately consider the entire scope of environmental damage, which would include blocking and potentially polluting a watershed that feeds the aquifer for the city of Tucson, where almost a million people live.

“The Corps has not considered the degree or scope of the impacts to wildlife, cultural resources, and other protected public lands in its decision, and it has not done its job to ensure that this project is in the public’s interest,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter.

The area includes endangered fish, frogs, snakes, birds and plants, and would destroy thousands of federally designated habitat for the last remaining jaguars on U.S. soil.

Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity called the reversed finding of the Corps outrageous.

“This decision to betray southern Arizona and greenlight this disaster won’t stand,” Serraglio said in a statement. “We’ll fight for Tucson’s water security and the jaguars, ocelots and other wildlife that call the Santa Ritas home.”

The groups are represented by the Western Mining Action Project, a public-interest law firm specializing in litigation on mining issues in the western states, and Marc Fink and Allison Melton of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Corps of Engineers did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening.

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