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The issue that I have decided to research and write about is: should jaguars be reintroduced to Southern Arizona? This is a controversial topic because most ranchers in Southern Arizona are concerned about the well-being of their livestock, if jaguars were to be reintroduced. On the other hand, wildlife conservationists make the argument that these creatures have been trying to survive in this harsh climate for decades, facing the brink of extinction in the process. Conservation efforts dedicated to preserving the jaguar population in Arizona are heightening the concerns of ranchers, who fear that if jaguars become abundant, the future of their animals' lives will be short lived.
Many scientists claim that jaguars used to be abundant in Southern Arizona until they were almost hunted to the point of extinction due to their unique pelts and threats to livestock. Researchers say that the last recorded female jaguar in the U.S., let alone Arizona, was shot dead in 1963.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department expressed in an editorial, “Since 1996, fewer than 10 jaguars have been confirmed in New Mexico or Arizona… Jaguars have been documented in recent years in rugged areas south of Tucson, but all of the cats have been male.” As the jaguar population continues to dwindle, the number of scientists urging for their protection is heightening.
One of the main arguments in favor of reintroducing jaguars in Southern Arizona is a moral one, simple compassion demands their preservation. We don't have the right to deny an organism's existence or deny that existence to future generations.
Jaguars have been a part of Southwest Arizona’s region since they were first reported in 1827. While facing extinction trying to survive in an area where they have been almost eliminated from, they have become a symbol of Arizona in a way. The editors of Conservation Catalyst describe their significance in a statement, “Arizona also has bald eagles. Are they unimportant because there are eagles in Alaska? Is their habitat expendable because it doesn’t look like eagle habitat in Canada? Why the double standard with our one and only Big Cat?” While some Arizonians seem to agree that jaguars in Arizona need to be protected at all costs for their intrinsic and symbolic values - similar to that of the bald eagle, others continue to expect the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to resolve this issue, leaving conservation groups urging for public support feeling discouraged.
Jaguar reintroduction in Southern Arizona has become a popular conversation since the famous male jaguar, El Jefe, has been spotted in the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson. El Jefe’s territory has been recorded to be home to multiple jaguars in the late 1800s and early 1900s, indicating that this region can adequately support them. However, there has been much controversy surrounding this land since the Canadian mining company, Hudbay Minerals Inc. has proposed an open-pit copper mine, Rosemont Mine, to be built in this same area. While some citizens can see the potential implications of this mine to the jaguar population, they continue to recognize its economic value, leaving conservationists concerned about El Jefe and his protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Many researchers argue that the jaguar's presence in the U.S. has the potential to improve the Mexican population’s genetic diversity, which is in a constant threat from poaching. Researchers say that they increased population at the top of the food chain in the U.S. could also benefit the overall ecosystem. Avila, an Arizona Sonora Desert Museum research scientist agrees with the researchers urging for their protection, writing in a publication that, “Because we have open space where they can set up territories, protected areas and environmental laws here, because we have healthy populations of wild prey here, and because we have connections to the south and we have habitat, reintroduction could be worth it ecologically.” While Arizonians seem to agree that jaguars are a valuable asset to our overall biodiversity, they continue to sympathize with the concerns of ranchers, leaving researchers concerned for the future of this species in Southern Arizona.
Another point made by wildlife conservationists is that the more jaguars migrating from Sonora, Mexico to the U.S., the more we should be monitoring this species. The recovery plan proposed by the U.S. FWS acknowledges that the less that their movements are restricted between here and Mexico, the more the jaguar population will flourish. However, biologists argue that these large animals need larger passages to get into the United States. Wildlife advocate Shaun McKinnon adds to this point explaining that, “...isolating the cats and restricting their movements will weaken the gene pool of jaguars in their northern range, leaving their recovery in doubt.” While the U.S. FWS agrees that this could have detrimental effects on the jaguar population, they continue to move forward with their recovery plan, leaving scientists confused and upset.
The U.S. FWS believes that its resources are best spent on the jaguar’s recovery in Mexico, not on what they see as their additional habitat in Southern Arizona. They say that their budget is limited, and there is only so much they can do to combat the extinction of this species. The Smithsonian Magazine explains the perspective of the U.S. FWS, writing in a publication that, “Their rationale is that our limited dollars are best spent on making those populations as robust as possible rather than manufacturing new populations in a range that may no longer be appropriate.” While Arizona taxpayers agree with the economic concerns of the U.S. FWS, they continue to advocate for the jaguar’s preservation, leaving the U.S. FWS concerned about where their budget for this project is best spent.
Many Arizonians believe that while the jaguar population is a valuable aspect, they argue that we cannot sacrifice the economic benefits that would be generated by the Rosemont Mine in order to save a species already on the verge of extinction in Southern Arizona. Considering how many jobs and copper that could be generated by this mine, many argue that preserving the jaguar’s population is not at the height of their concerns. The authors of the Smithsonian Magazine describe the mine's benefits in an editorial stating, “If the project goes ahead, the Rosemont Mine will be the third-largest copper mine in the U.S., with a dollar value estimated in the tens of billions.” While many Arizonians understand the implications that this mine could cause to the already dwindling jaguar population, they continue to support the Rosemont Mine, leaving conservationists concerned about what the aftermath will mean for jaguars in Southern Arizona.
El Jefe has been argued to be, by many Arizonians, a Mexican intruder who could potentially be dangerous to surrounding families in the area. Although jaguar attacks on humans are extremely rare, it doesn’t eliminate this possibility. Beth Dalbey, a member of the Patch staff in Phoenix, Arizona describes a woman being attacked by a jaguar at Wildlife World Zoo stating, “Adam Wilkerson and his mother, Michele Flores, heard the woman's screams and helped rescue her, CBS News reported. The jaguar's claws were retracted and 'definitely outside the cage,' Wilkerson said.” Although this incident took place at a zoo, Arizona residents argue that the result could have been much worse if the jaguar was roaming in the wild, and the woman was not protected by the cage.
Many ranchers argue that jaguars pose a threat to their livestock, especially their cattle. There have been reports of ranchers attempting to, or even killing jaguars to protect their livestock - despite it being illegal in both the U.S. in Mexico. Carlos Elias, owner of a ranch near Nogales, Arizona explains that, “There are many ranchers who still kill jaguars and there need to be more programs that support other alternatives like payments for pictures and other kinds of programs.” Although there are programs such as the Arizona and New Mexico Jaguar Conservation Team, who compensate livestock owners for documented kills of their livestock due to jaguars, there are still many ranchers who are left to take matters into their own hands at their own discretion.
Although the recovery plan for the endangered jaguar proposed by the U.S. FWS provides options for the restoration of jaguars, wildlife advocates argue that it won’t be enough. The agency plans to refrain from reintroducing jaguars anywhere in the U.S. but claims to attempt to preserve some of their existing territories in Southern Arizona. While the U.S. FWS argues that this is the only plan that outlines realistic achievements for this species continuance, for many advocates, it leaves much to be desired.
Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, which successfully forced the wildlife service to develop the recovery plan argues, “This so-called recovery plan won’t do anything to help the jaguar, so the threats to its survival and recovery will still require urgent action.” While government officials agree that this is not the ideal plan to improve the jaguars population in the United States, they continue to rely on Mexico and other countries in Central and South America to provide sufficient recovery for these animals, leaving conservationists concerned about their survival in what some jaguars see as their home territory - Southern Arizona.
On the other hand, the U.S. FWS argues that this recovery plan is the best shot that jaguars have for survival, given the circumstances. They believe that since most of the jaguars that used to reside in the U.S. have moved to Mexico, they would be wasting resources trying to reintroduce this species in the U.S. The home range in the Santa Rita Mountains is only home to a few jaguars, most famously El Jefe. As much as the U.S. FWS wants to help protect these animals at all costs, there is more that they can do to preserve this species in Mexico than they can do here in the U.S. Although this recovery plan aims to protect and restore the jaguar population, wildlife advocates contemplate if it will truly be enough.
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