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Conservation Groups Want To Re-Introduce Jaguars To Southwest U.S.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Environmental groups and scientists with two universities want U.S. wildlife managers to consider reintroducing jaguars to the American Southwest.

In a recently published paper, they say habitat destruction, highways and existing segments of the border wall mean that natural reestablishment of the large cats north of the U.S.-Mexico boundary would be unlikely over the next century without human intervention.

Jaguars are currently found in 19 countries, but biologists have said the animals have lost more than half of their historic range from South and Central America into the southwestern United States largely due to hunting and habitat loss.

Coronavirus precautions in Colombia
TEQUENDAMA, COLOMBIA - APRIL 03: A black jaguar is seen as zookeepers feed the animals at the Santa Cruz Foundation Zoo in Tequendama, Colombia on April 03, 2020. Colombia as the second most biodiverse country in the world, the zoos have been affected by the lack of visitors and suffer to meet expenses due to forced closure to contain the pandemic of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Juancho Torres/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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. Most recently, a male jaguar was spotted just south of the border and another was seen in Arizona in January.

Scientists and experts with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Center for Landscape Conservation, Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and other organizations are pointing to about 3,125 square miles (nearly 8,100 square kilometers) of suitable habitat in the mountains of central Arizona and New Mexico that could potentially support anywhere from 90 to 150 jaguars.

They contend that reintroducing the cats is essential to species conservation and restoration of the region's ecosystem.

"We are attempting to start a new conversation around jaguar recovery, and this would be a project that would be decades in the making," Sharon Wilcox of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the study's authors, said in an interview. "There are ecological dimensions, human dimensions that would need to be addressed in a truly collaborative manner. There would need to be a number of stakeholders who would want to be at the table in order to see this project move forward."

Under a recovery plan finalized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mexico as well as countries in Central and South America are primarily responsible for monitoring jaguar movements within their territory. The agency has noted that the Southwestern U.S. represents just one-tenth of 1% of the jaguar's historic range.

Environmentalists have criticized the plan, saying the U.S. government overlooked opportunities for recovery north of the international border.

While the recovery plan doesn't call for reintroductions in the U.S., federal officials have said efforts will continue to focus on sustaining habitat, eliminating poaching and improving social acceptance to accommodate those cats that find their way across the border.

Jaguar vs Caiman: Big Cat Ambushes Reptile in Epic River Battle
*** EXCLUSIVE - VIDEO AVAILABLE *** PORTO JOFRE, NORTHERN PANTANAL - OCTOBER 15: A hungry jaguar on the riverbank on October 15, 2015 in Porto Jofre, Northern Pantanal. A HUNGRY jaguar and a large caiman wrestle in a river for 20 minutes before the big cat finally prevails. Shot in October by wildlife guide, Leen Gillis, 33, the dramatic footage shows the ruthless predator pounce on the unsuspecting reptile while a group of tourists watch in amazement. Filmed in Black Little River in Porto Jofre, Northern Pantanal, the video also shows the jaguar struggling to lift its prey on to the riverbank. The adolescent male, who is new to the area, eventually dragged its prey into the nearby forest and stayed there for the next few days feasting. Belgian born safari operator Leen confirmed that seeing a jaguar involved in such a brutal struggle was unusual. PHOTOGRAPH BY John Medlock / Barcroft Media UK Office, London. T +44 845 370 2233 W USA Office, New York City. T +1 212 796 2458 W Indian Office, Delhi. T +91 11 4053 2429 W (Photo credit should read John Medlock / Barcroft Media / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

The habitat highlighted by the conservation groups is rugged and made up mostly of federally managed land. They say it includes water sources, suitable cover and prey.

Fish and Wildlife Service biologists have yet to review the latest study, but such a proposal would likely face fierce opposition from ranchers and some rural residents who have been at odds with environmentalists and the Fish and Wildlife Service over the reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves. That program has faced numerous challenges over the past two decades and while wolf numbers are trending upward, ranchers say so are livestock deaths.

Jaguar advocates said losses could be mitigated through compensation programs like those established as a result of the wolf program.

Then there's the question of where the jaguars would come from. Advocates say a captive breeding program could be developed over time and jaguars from existing wild populations could be relocated.

Wilcox said there are many factors — some understood and others still being studied — that influence the movement of jaguars.

"But this is a vast area with suitable vegetation," she said. "It's populated with the right kind of prey for these cats and given its elevation and its latitude, it might provide an important climate refugium for the species in the future."


(© Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)  

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