Perhaps things are looking up for the jaguar (Panthera onca) in the United States. 

Back in 2019, the US National Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) published a jaguar recovery plan impacting sections of Arizona and New Mexico. The service had earlier recognizing that parts of the southwestern US were appropriate habitat for these cats. These new sections became part of the overall Pan-American Recovery Unit which extends from Argentina to the US.  (See a good map here at this link.) 

As you could imagine, controversy and litigation dogged each step in the process.  When the plan was released, it suggested that the site could only accommodate six jaguars.  Frankly, this was probably still too many jaguars for some people’s comfort. 

Now, a separate and somewhat modified methodology proposes a much different scenario.  

The modified assessment reviewed the habitat area beyond the traditional Interstate-10 boundary.  Recognizing that jaguars may be able to live north of the interstate is, in itself, controversial.  The legal description of the jaguar range within the US borders has been disputed for nearly 50 years.  Any attempt at redefining the boundaries was going to be an uphill battle.  Consequently, the researchers chose a detailed, systemic approach for the task to minimize (or eliminate) bias.

Using scientific criteria to define the jaguar ecology, the team studied the habitat potential within all of Arizona and New Mexico.   There were eleven different categories of data to be evaluated.  Examples include geographic elevation and whether or not a prey base existed nearby. 

The results revealed that additional areas within the two states could potentially sustain a larger jaguar population.  In fact, it may be suitable for up to 90-151 cats.  This number is potentially self-sustaining, whereas the previous population of 6 would not be viable.  

While this may seem promising, there are some caveats.  First, the limits to the jaguar’s natural range are poorly understood.  Why have they not been spotted in these regions previously?  (Aside from the fact that sightings are extremely rare anyway.)  Is there some other factor at play?

Additionally, there are likely to be more legal challenges before expanding the recovery plan territory.  The land included in this assessment encompasses private, as well as public, parcels.  It may be a bit optimistic to assume everyone will be enthusiastic about encouraging jaguars to roam on their private lands. 

Sources: 

Scientific Publication – Sanderson, E., Fisher, K., Peters, R., Beckmann, J., Bird, B., Bradley, C., . . . Wilcox, S. (2021). A systematic review of potential habitat suitability for the jaguar Panthera onca in central Arizona and New Mexico, USA. Oryx, 1-12. doi:10.1017/S0030605320000459

News Release – https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-03/dow-nsr031721.php

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