PHOENIX – Conservationists are making another push to get federal wildlife officials to devote more resources to the re-establishment of wild jaguars in the U.S.
Only three jaguars have been seen in recent years, but conservationists like Rob Peters, a senior representative for Defenders of Wildlife, believe they can call the United States home again with a series of conservation measures including translocation and establishing a larger habitat area by federal officials.
Wild jaguars lived in Arizona as far north as the Grand Canyon and in New Mexico for years before habitat loss and predator control programs aimed at protecting livestock eliminated them in the past 150 years. It's been over 50 years since a female jaguar was seen in Arizona.
But in the past few years, trail cameras have captured three jaguars in Arizona. Two are males, and the gender of the third one, which was captured on camera in the Dos Cabezas Mountains in Arizona about 60 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border late last year, is unknown.
Recovery efforts have faced pushback from all sides, including livestock owners who sued the Fish and Wildlife Service when it set aside nearly 1,200 square miles along the border as habitat for the conservation of jaguars in 2014.
"There are all these political issues, but when you have good plan, coexistent techniques that really work, I think there's a path toward success," Peters said.
Peters said the biggest obstacle to a renewed push for recovery is the habitat boundaries set by a proposed jaguar recovery plan released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December. That plan aims to sustain habitat, eliminate poaching and improve social acceptance of the animal. It focuses recovery efforts on northern Mexico, where a sizeable population of jaguars lives.
Peters also says Fish and Wildlife should also consider relocating female jaguars from Mexico to the United States.
Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife, said the proposed plan is under review and will likely be finalized in about a year.
He said a team of jaguar experts made the recommendations best suited for recovery and that much of the Defenders of Wildlife report agrees with its proposals, such as the need to better educate the public about jaguars and to make the big cats more socially accepted.
"The modeling, mathematics and science that the recovery team has applied indicate that the best bang for our buck for recovering jaguars is to focus on those populations in Mexico," Humphrey said.
The agency's proposed plan for jaguar recovery would cost $56 million over five years and $605 million through 2066.
Peters says the plan doesn't do enough.
It limits the proposed habitat to south of Interstate 10 and doesn't even consider translocation. It also doesn't touch on the border wall President Donald Trump has proposed.
"The border wall would be an absolute disaster. If it's completed with pedestrian throughout jaguar corridors, it would completely preclude the option of jaguars getting to the United States on their own," Peters said.
There's also the matter of money.
Peters says Fish and Wildlife is already underfunded, and that budget cuts proposed by Trump "would seriously undermine recovery for all species."