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Definition of 'essential' probed in ranchers’ beef over jaguar habitat

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Definition of 'essential' probed in ranchers’ beef over jaguar habitat

  • El Jefe, one of the few wild jaguars in the United States.
    U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceEl Jefe, one of the few wild jaguars in the United States.

Jaguars once roamed throughout North America. But since only a handful of the large cats have been spotted in the last decade, the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau argued before the 10th Circuit last Wednesday that land designated in the state for the predators isn’t essential to their conservation.

In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 764,207 acres of land in Arizona and the southwest corner of New Mexico as critical habitat for a jaguar population concentrated 130 miles south in Mexico.

The designation limits ranchers’ ability to receive permits or conduct wildfire management burns and prevents them from fencing in livestock. The Farm and Livestock Bureau sued over the limitations in 2015, but U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales sided with Fish and Wildlife in 2017.

Defenders of the jaguars contend the land is needed for males that often roam hundreds of miles. The farmers counter that the land can’t be essential if the jaguars don’t live there.

“The ruling works in no way unless you change the definition of ‘essential’ to mean ‘helpful,’” said attorney Christina Martin of the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of the farmers. “The statute says designated land must be essential to conservation but never defined ‘essential.’”

“Secondary lands and borderlands may be helpful but they’re not ‘essential’ to the recovery of a species,” Martin added.

U.S. Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero, appointed by Bill Clinton, suggested attorneys representing Fish and Wildlife break out a dictionary.

“It might be helpful to begin with a definition of terms,” Lucero said.

Mark Haag, a Justice Department attorney, conceded he had no definition of essential to give other than “critical habitat refers to occupied and unoccupied areas.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Harris Hartz, appointed by George W. Bush, said that without a defined term the appellate panel has no role in the case.

“We apparently have no definition, so you have to decide that and show us the facts that it has been satisfied,” Hartz said. “We can’t do our job of applying the law without the facts.”

Lucero also clarified whether a potential wall constructed along the southern U.S. border would render jaguar crossings impossible, but Haag said there is no proposed construction through the current range.

Barack Obama-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Scott Matheson Jr. rounded out the three-judge panel. They did not indicate when they would rule.

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