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Feds propose 1,200 sq. miles for jaguar habitat in S. Az

'Critical habitat' includes Rosemont Mine area

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that 838,000 acres near the U.S.-Mexico border be designated as critical habitat for jaguars. While a small section of the proposed zone is in New Mexico, most of the land is in Southern Arizona, including the area of the proposed Rosemont Mine.

The move was hailed by the environmental group that has long worked for jaguar protection.

"Jaguars once roamed across the United States, from California to Louisiana, but have been virtually extinct here since the 1950s," said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, which sued to push a recovery plan for jaguars.

The agency is set to publish its findings in the Federal Register on Monday, said spokesman Jeff Humphrey, which will trigger a 60-day public comment period.

The proposed critical habitat—outlined in a 126-page document—will help protect the jaguar, which was declared an endangered species in 1997, from extinction, Humphrey said.

"Today's habitat proposal will ensure North America's largest cat returns to the wild mountains and deserts of the Southwest. Jaguars are a spectacular part of our natural heritage and belong to every American — just as surely as bald eagles, wolves and grizzly bears," Suckling said.

While there have only been "a handful of jaguars seen (in Southern Arizona) in 50 years ... they are elusive cats," Humphrey said. There have been three confirmed jaguar sightings in the last five years, he said.

Jaguar habit extends through Mexico into Central and South America.

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The last jaguar known to have crossed into the United States from Mexico, Macho B, was killed in a botched effort to capture him in 2009.

The habitat proposal, which covers a total of 1,300 square miles, is expected to be finalized within a year, Humphrey said. The process includes the preparation of an economic impact statement, and further public comments, he said.

Rosemont impact?

A critical habitat designation "pertains to federal agencies and their activities—what they fund, what they permit," Humphrey said.

"Purely private activity, on private land, it doesn't affect them," he said.

But the designation could have an impact on the effort to dig an open-pit copper mine south of Tucson. The Rosemont Mine has been the subject of controversy over water usage and other environmental impacts.

The tailings from the proposed mine would be piled on federal land near the privately owned Rosemont site.

Humphrey said the habitat designation, if approved, would be a "proceed with caution" sign for federal agencies performing or permitting work in covered areas.

Az habitat helps species survive

Designating critical habitat will help keep jaguars from going extinct, Humphrey said.

While Arizona is "the northern extremity of the range of the jaguar ... it serves the cat as a corridor for journeys between areas in Mexico," he said.

"Because of the way the mountains lie, we think they move through the border to travel east and west," he said.

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The proposal said the Arizona's jaguar population contributes to the species' prospects for survival because big cats here are living under different environmental conditions.

Arizona jaguars "contribute to the cats' capacity to change," Humphrey said. They adapt to hotter, drier environments over the long term, he  said, aiding jaguars' survival in the face of climate change.

"You can't protect endangered species without protecting the places they live," said Suckling. "Species with protected critical habitat recover twice as fast as those without it. This wild expanse of habitat is a huge boost to the return of jaguars to the American Southwest."

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Critical habit areas

Included in the proposed jaguar critical habitat proposal are:

  • 343,033 acres in the Santa Rita, Patagonia and Huachuca mountains and the Canelo Hills
  • 143,578 acres in the Tumacacori, Atascosa and Pajarito mountains
  • 138,975 acres in the Baboquivari Mountains
  • 105,498 acres in the Whetstone Mountains, including connections to the Santa Rita and Huachuca Mountains
  • 99,559 acres in the Peloncillo Mountains, Ariz. and N.M.
  • 7,590 acres in the San Luis Mountains, N.M.