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Fish and Wildlife Service eyes more than 800,000 acres for jaguar habitat

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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is looking at more than 830,00 acres in southeastern Arizona and neighboring parts of New Mexico as critical habitat for the endangered jaguar.

The proposed plan would include parts of Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties in Arizona as well as smaller amounts of land in New Mexico, according to the announcement published last week in the Federal Register.

Most of the land under study is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management or the state of Arizona, and the plan does not affect land ownership, according to the proposal.

The habitat would not affect private activities on private land, said Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

But he said the designation could affect future fencing, highway construction, or mining, among other projects within the designated area, as the government will have a new stipulation to consider when approving federally funded projects.

That’s a concern to Stefanie Smallhouse, a rancher in Pima County and the second vice president of the Arizona Farm Bureau. She said more red tape is not going to help anyone.

“Any critical habitat, in general, usually affects any type of productive use of the land. It will slow down any conservation projects that the ranchers want to put in,” she said.

But supporters said the plan – which remains open for public comment until Oct. 19 – comes none too soon.

“The jaguar, if it’s going to be able to recover and survive in the United States, has to have its habitat to protect it, because no species can survive without it,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The center sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 for not declaring the jaguar endangered in the U.S. until 1997, which Suckling said was almost too late to save the animal.

“The jaguar is an important species to the ecosystem. Had it been protected, we would have breeding jaguars in the United States,” he said.

Only six or seven jaguars have been spotted in the United States since 1982, according to the government. Suckling said there would be many more in the U.S. if the animal had a place to breed, but that the government took too long to act.

“Now we have to do everything we can do to make up for the errors of the past,” Suckling said.

But Patrick Bray, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association, questioned the need to protect the jaguar in the U.S., noting that the animal’s range is typically in Central and South America. The lands being targeted in Arizona and New Mexico are the northernmost reaches of the jaguar’s range and are not essential to its recovery, he said.

“The money spent … toward the recovery is going to be ludicrous,” said Bray, adding that if environmental groups really wanted to help the jaguar, they could spend their money in Mexico or South America where the animal primarily lives.

While public comment on the plan will be accepted until Oct. 19, requests for a public hearing on the issue must be filed by Oct. 4.