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Fight over jaguar habitat in Southwest heads back to court

March 20, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this Dec. 1, 2016, file image from video provided by Fort Huachuca, a wild jaguar is seen in southern Arizona. A federal appeals court is ordering a New Mexico judge to reconsider a case involving a fight over a critical habitat in the U.S. Southwest for endangered jaguars. Ranchers had sued, arguing that a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set aside thousands of acres for the cats violated the statute that guides wildlife managers in determining whether certain areas are essential for the conservation of a species. The appellate court this week overturned an earlier ruling that had sided with federal officials. (Fort Huachuca via AP, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 1, 2016, file image from video provided by Fort Huachuca, a wild jaguar is seen in southern Arizona. A federal appeals court is ordering a New Mexico judge to reconsider a case involving a fight over a critical habitat in the U.S. Southwest for endangered jaguars. Ranchers had sued, arguing that a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set aside thousands of acres for the cats violated the statute that guides wildlife managers in determining whether certain areas are essential for the conservation of a species. The appellate court this week overturned an earlier ruling that had sided with federal officials. (Fort Huachuca via AP, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A federal appeals court is ordering a U.S. district judge in New Mexico to reconsider a case involving a fight over critical habitat for the endangered jaguar in the American Southwest.

Groups representing ranchers had sued, arguing that a 2014 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set aside thousands of acres for the cats was arbitrary and violated the statute that guides wildlife managers in determining whether certain areas are essential for the conservation of a species.

With the order released this week, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an earlier ruling that had sided with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Jaguars are currently found in 19 countries. Several individual male jaguars have been spotted in Arizona and New Mexico over the last two decades but there’s no evidence of breeding pairs establishing territories beyond northern Mexico.

Shrinking habitats, insufficient prey, poaching and retaliatory killings over livestock deaths are some of the things that have contributed to the jaguar’s decline in the Southwest over the past 150 years.

Under a recovery plan finalized last year, Mexico as well as countries in Central and South America would be primarily responsible for monitoring jaguar movements within their territory. Environmentalists have criticized the plan, saying the U.S. government is overlooking opportunities for recovery north of the international border.

At issue in the latest legal battle is more than 170 square miles that span two desert mountain ranges in Arizona and New Mexico.

Greater scrutiny is required when including in the critical habitat designation those areas that aren’t occupied by the endangered species. In order to do so, wildlife officials have to determine that those areas occupied by the jaguar when it was first listed as an endangered species would be inadequate to ensure the conservation of the species.

The appellate court said the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to make that argument.

The court also said there was no evidence in the record of jaguars being present in the two areas around the time of the initial listing in 1972 or at any time before 1995.

“The Service’s reliance on sightings in 1995, 1996, and 2006 to support a conclusion of occupation in 1972 is not based on expert opinion and is purely speculative,” the court said.

While the Fish and Wildlife Service was accused of not following its own regulations regarding the habit designation, the court said the areas in question could be considered essential for the species if it were to expand its existing range.