ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday it will set aside critical habitat for the endangered jaguar and develop a recovery plan for the elusive animal once thought to have disappeared from the United States.
The agency said it will review which lands the big cats need to survive and will put together a plan by early next year to help the species recover.
Conservationists had been anxiously awaiting the decisions on the recovery plan and critical habitat since last Friday, when a federal court had imposed a deadline for the agency. The court granted a last-minute extension, giving the Fish and Wildlife Service until the end of Tuesday.
“This is a huge boost for recovery because it means the best scientists and best minds on how to conserve jaguars will come together and figure out how to restore them onto our landscapes,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that has been seeking critical habitat for the jaguar for more than a decade.
Robinson and other conservationists saw the case as a test of whether the Obama administration would take extra steps to protect animals whose ranges stretch beyond the nation’s borders.
The largest cats native to the Western hemisphere, jaguars live primarily in Mexico, Central and South America. They once inhabited an extensive area that spanned California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana.
The cats were considered eliminated from the country until two were spotted in 1996 near the Arizona-New Mexico border.
Most recently, a snare captured a jaguar last year in southern Arizona. Nicknamed Macho B, the cat was eventually euthanized after falling ill, sparking criticism over jaguar recovery efforts.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday that it decided to set aside critical habitat for the jaguar based on new information it received over the last three years. It acknowledged that there are “physical and biological features” in the Southwest that can be used by jaguars.
While the boundaries of the critical habitat have yet to be set, Eva Sargent of Defenders of Wildlife said protecting an animal’s range is key to recovery.
“What the jaguar really needs is protected corridors where it can move between Mexico and the U.S. That’s the ticket,” she said, adding there is some concern over how construction of a wall between Mexico and the U.S. could impact the jaguar population.
Some landowners in southern New Mexico and Arizona also voiced concerns about how critical habitat may impact grazing permits and recreation in the area.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, questioned why critical habitat was being established at the fringe of where the animal might survive. She said if the goal is to recover the species, more effort should be focused on populations in Mexico and further south.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom Buckley said it will be a long process for establishing the habitat boundaries and developing a recovery plan and the effort will include opportunities for public participation.
The agency said it has no plans to reintroduce jaguars into the United States. Any cats that might be found north of the border will be those that wander up from Mexico.
From 1996 through 2009, four or possibly five jaguars have been documented in the United States. All the sightings have been limited to southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona.