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Taking the Careful Path to Jaguar Recovery

Wildlands Network recently submitted comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) suggesting ways to improve their proposed jaguar recovery plan. The FWS comment deadline comes just 2 weeks after we learned some very exciting news: a new jaguar has been photo-documented in the Dos Cabezas mountains in southern Arizona!

The conservation communities of both the U.S. and Mexico enthusiastically celebrated the new jaguar because his or her presence signifies these animals are still managing to disperse from established populations in northern Mexico to their historic habitat in the U.S.—even in the face of highways, development, and the devastating border wall. More exciting still is the fact that this jaguar is farther north than others of its kind have been seen in decades.

More photographs are needed to reveal the sex of the new jaguar, though in all likelihood it is another wandering male, as males disperse over much greater distances than females. There are no known wild female jaguars currently inhabiting the U.S.; without a female, the U.S. won’t be hosting jaguar kittens any time soon, either. Until jaguars once again breed on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, there is no hope for jaguar recovery across the species’ range—the ultimate goal for both countries.

A large spotted cat walking across rocky ground
A wild jaguar in northern Mexico photographed by a remote camera. Photo: Northern Jaguar Project, Naturalia

Wildlife agencies, conservation groups (including Wildlands Network), and scientists in both Mexico and the U.S. are working diligently to cultivate strategies to protect existing jaguars and to ensure the expansion of the population. In the U.S., the FWS is tasked with developing a plan to protect the jaguar—a so-called “recovery plan.”

Community input is essential to developing successful recovery plans that are based on the best available science and that meet the requirements of federal law. The jaguar recovery plan will drive all future planning and activities to support jaguar recovery, so its importance cannot be overstated.

Our comments highlighted two key points that should be included in the final plan in order to maximize the chances for jaguar recovery and to comply with federal law.

First, important new research—designed in part by Wildlands Network—has revealed flaws in previous findings that indicated very limited habitat for jaguar recovery in the U.S. These flawed findings and the FWS’s related assumptions resulted in the agency’s severely under-identifying potential jaguar recovery areas in the American southwest. The identification of such areas determines future planning and funding to protect jaguars.

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For example, our new research identifies suitable jaguar habitat north of Interstate 10. The new jaguar was notably photographed just south of the interstate, in a known wildlife corridor that stretches across the highway. FWS doesn’t include any habitat north of Interstate 10 in its current plan, meaning that recovery efforts—including funding for projects like road crossings—would never be directed toward this important habitat.

Second, we proposed that FWS should implement important safeguards before considering reintroduction efforts in the U.S.  Several of our partners have concluded that the reintroduction of female jaguars or breeding pairs in the U.S. is the only viable path to recovery in the next 40-plus years given the limited dispersal of female jaguars and the extensive distance between known jaguar populations in Mexico and jaguar habitat in the U.S.

Also, scientists have documented genetic differences between existing jaguar populations, suggesting that any jaguars released into the U.S. should be sourced from northern Mexico—meaning from populations that are far from secure themselves. We strongly urge FWS to implement strict requirements and best practices to ensure that recovery in the U.S. does not come at the expense of jaguar populations elsewhere. Protection and support across the jaguar’s full range is a necessary component of an equitable and successful recovery program.

We are optimistic about jaguar recovery and are eager to see this apex predator restored to its native range. But we know that the tenuous path forward must be traveled with care, much like the new jaguar’s journey from Mexico to the U.S.

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