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Environmentalists criticize proposed jaguar recovery plan

Environmental groups are criticizing the details of a proposed recovery plan for the northern jaguar released Monday by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, arguing that the plan is too weak to protect the species from extinction. 

The plan's release came just days after Arizona Game and Fish officials confirmed that a male jaguar—the second known to be in state—had been spotted by trail cameras near Ft. Huachuca. The two are the only wild jaguars known to have been seen in the United States in years.

While jaguars are found in 19 countries, stretching from the U.S.-Mexico border to northern Argentina, officials from the binational Jaguar Recovery Team, which includes officials from the United States and Mexico, said that the plan will focus on the cat's northwestern population in Mexico and the southwestern United States. 

The recovery plan will not include the reintroduction of the jaguar in the United States, but will instead focus on efforts to sustain habitat, eliminate poaching and improve social acceptance of the jaguar, so that the iconic large cat can again become part of the ecosystem in the United States. 

Federal officials are asking for public comment and information while the plan is considered. 

"The draft recovery plan for the endangered jaguar has been far too long in the making and is too weak for a species that has been racing extinction in the U.S. for decades," said Rob Peters, a biologist with Defenders of Wildlife. 

"The draft plan rules out translocating jaguars into the U.S., and the area allotted for recovery is much too small, covering only a fraction of the big cat’s historic range. This one-two punch makes jaguar recovery in the U.S. unlikely," said Peters. 

A sharper criticism came from Michael Robinson, with the Center for Biological Diversity, who called the proposal an "extinction plan, not a recovery plan." 

"By excluding the best remaining unoccupied jaguar habitat, this plan aims too low to make a difference in saving the jaguar," Robinson said. 

The plan, the group said, "puts the onus of recovery of northern jaguars entirely on Mexico." 

Robinson said that since 2013, conservationists in Sonora, Mexico watched as six of the area's eight jaguars were poached, primarily killed by ranchers, who use pesticides imported from the United States to poison the carcasses of javelinas, the jaguar's favorite prey. 

Robinson said the plan's measures in Mexico were important, but "simply not enough" because it didn't include parts of Arizona and New Mexico, a region that Fish and Wildlife called a "peripheral area" that includes what the Center for Biological Diversity called the "highest-quality jaguar habitat remaining in the U.S." 

"Leaving the vast Gila National Forest and Mogollon Plateau off the table leaves the jaguars in Sonora effectively stranded, likely cut off from jaguars farther south and with no genetic rescue on the way from reintroduction to the north," said Robinson. 

Loss of habitat, direct killing of jaguars, and depletion of prey are the primary factors contributing to the jaguar’s current status and decreasing population trend, said Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Spangle said that Mexico has already made significant contributions to the conservation of jaguars, and that Fish and Wildlife would coordinate with Mexican officials as they implemented their own recovery plan. 

Defenders of Wildlife said that the jaguar is native to the Southwestern United States and has been listed as endangered in the U.S. since 1997. 

"In Teddy Roosevelt’s day jaguars roamed across most of Arizona to the rim of the Grand Canyon, into southwestern New Mexico’s Gila wilderness and over the Río Grande into the Big Bend of Texas," the group said. However, decades of habitat loss and poaching under programs designed to eliminate predators to protect livestock eliminated the species from more than half of its historic range. 

Since 1996, up to seven individual jaguars have been documented in southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, the agency said. 

This includes "El Jefe," a male jaguar spotted in the Santa Rita mountains southeast of Tucson in 2011 and caught on video in February, and another jaguar named "Macho B" killed during a botched attempt to capture him by Arizona Game and Fish in 2009. 

The last known female jaguar in the United States was shot by a hunter in 1963 near the Apache National Forest in northern Arizona. 

In 2008, Defenders of Wildlife sued federal officials, forcing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set aside nearly 1,200 square miles of habitat for the jaguar in southern Arizona and New Mexico.  

Meanwhile, the Center for Biological Diversity is pursuing a second lawsuit against FWS in attempt to halt the approval of the Rosemont Mine, an open-pit copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, near where "El Jefe" is likely roaming.

Fish and Wildlife Service said it could take at least a half-century before the jaguar population was self-sustaining in parts of their historic range, but that it was unlikely that the species would disperse to its historic range in the United States. 

Further, federal officials said that recovering the jaguar will require not only the protection of jaguar habitat, but also rules and incentives to protect the big cats from people, including incentives and regulations to keep people from killing the animals in retaliation for preying on livestock. 

These protections must remain in place even after the jaguar is removed from the endangered species list to ensure the long-term viability of the species, said the Fish and Wildlife Service. 

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A still from a new video showing 'El Jefe,' the only jaguar known to live in the United States, in the mountains south of Tucson.