The jaguar is native to the US, but it doesn’t live here now. At least not according to Alan Robinowitz, a major player in large cat conservation, and he seems surprisingly okay with that. In a New York Times op-ed, he argues against the recent FWS decision to designate critical habitat for the species, a step long argued for by other conservation groups.
When a species is designated as endangered under the Endanger Species Act, the FWS is required to designate critical habitat and formulate a recovery plan. They sometimes refrain from designating critical habitat when it is deemed imprudent to do so. Usually this is done for secrecy sake, when publishing the locations of the remaining populations might expose them to increased poaching. The jaguar was listed in 1972 and there is still no critical habitat protected.
The difficulty with setting habitat for the jaguar is that there are probably no individuals residing in the US, although they occasionally come over the Mexican border. This means, on the one hand, that there is no danger of exposing them to poachers. On the other hand, that means a recovery plan will have to be a substantial endeavor, possibly including reintroduction.
Robinowitz argues that the current absence of US jaguars “probably means the environment here is no longer ideal for them” and that it would somehow be unnatural to try to bring them back. He accuses conservationists of wanting “jaguars to repopulate the United States even if jaguars don’t want to.” All of this means that protecting jaguar habitat in the US is a diversion of resources and attention from other, sensible conservation efforts, which are already underfunded.
But jaguars did inhabit all the border states and likely Louisiana in the not too distant past. If the habitat is no longer acceptable, then that is surely the result of the massive human transformation of the landscape since the arrival of European settlers. Such habitat degradation and over-hunting is exactly the sort of impact that the ESA is meant to address and reverse. As to the purported desires of the jaguars not to return, I would have to see the polling data.
The effects on other conservation efforts will be more than just a diversion of resources. Restoring a top predator to the region will have far reaching ecological benefits. And the large scale protections required for jaguar habitat will be enormously beneficial for all other wildlife. This could be a major step toward the re-wilding of the Southwest.