(CN) - A federal judge in Tucson ruled that wildlife agencies must consider critical habitat and a recovery plan for the jaguar, listed as endangered since 1997. The decision comes a month after the last known wild jaguar in Arizona was euthanized following a controversial trapping and collaring incident.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife sued in 2007 and 2008, alleging that Department of Interior and Fish and Wildlife Service decisions declining to designate critical habitat and develop a recovery plan for North America's largest cat violated the Endangered Species Act.
The powerful feline, which lives as far south as Argentina, once thrived across the Southwest. Private and state-sanctioned predator control programs over the last two centuries severely reduced the jaguar's population in the United States, although four males were known to roam Arizona and New Mexico from 1996 to 2007.
The agencies reasoned that because jaguars seen in southern Arizona and New Mexico were merely transient individuals at the northernmost fringe of the species' range, the jaguar should be treated as a foreign species with no important habitat in the United States.
U.S. District Judge John Roll set aside the agencies' habitat and recovery plan decisions. Citing the 9th Circuit, Roll determined that the agencies overstepped the narrow intent of a "not prudent" exception in denying habitat and failed to use the best available science as required under law.
The agencies relied heavily on reports that did not consider jaguar habitat in the context of recovery under the Endangered Species Act and treated jaguar recovery inconsistently relative to other species with international populations, Roll said.
In setting aside the agencies' habitat decision, Roll also cited evidence suggesting that southern Arizona jaguars may have constituted a resident and not transient population.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department authorized euthanasia of the last known U.S. jaguar on March 2 after concluding that the cat suffered from kidney failure. The department captured and collared the approximately 16-year-old male, the oldest known wild jaguar, in a snare on Feb. 18.
The Arizona attorney general and Congressman Raul Grijalva have called for an investigation into the capture, recapture and euthanasia of the animal after veterinarians at the University of Arizona reported that the cat may not have had kidney failure after all. The Arizona Daily Star reported that a jaguar researcher claims to have baited the original trap with female scat.
Present-day factors threatening the powerfully built animal include loss of habitat and migratory corridors, continuing predator control and conflicts with domestic livestock. Defenders of Wildlife called the border fence, which slices through important migratory corridors, a "significant and immediate threat to jaguar conservation."
Judge Roll remanded the issue to the Fish and Wildlife Service, ordering it to reach critical habitat and recovery planning decisions by January 2010.
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