Picture a sleek jaguar tracking a deer through the forest, camouflaged by large spots on its coat (called rosettes) that mimic the dappled sunlight streaming through the trees. Native to North and South America, jaguars are one of the most powerful big cats on the planet. Yet significant habitat loss and fragmentation threaten the survival of these beautiful predators in the southwestern United States.
Jaguars are the largest cat in North and South America and the third-largest in the world after lions and tigers. On average, jaguars weigh 120 to 200 lbs. and the males can tip the scales at a whopping 300 lbs. At four to six feet long (not including the tail) and about three feet tall, jaguars are solid, stocky and powerful. Jaguars are solitary apex predators, putting them at the top of the food chain, where they play an important role in stabilizing the ecosystem.
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For jaguars to establish new populations in the U.S., the cats must be able to travel safely across the border from their range in Mexico, and through southern Arizona and New Mexico. Protecting these vital migratory corridors is essential to jaguar conservation. After decades of working to support jaguar recovery and advocating for greater protections, Defenders and other conservation groups succeeded in getting the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to designate 764,207 acres (1,194 square miles) of much-needed jaguar critical habitat in Arizona and New Mexico, which the agency finalized in March 2014. However, a recent lawsuit could strip much of these habitat protections for jaguars in New Mexico. A coalition of New Mexico ranching interest groups filed a lawsuit challenging 51,400 acres of critical habitat in the Peloncillo Mountains and 7,714 acres in the San Luis Mountains. Removing such large swaths of protected habitat simply isn’t acceptable. So Defenders is joining the case to support FWS’ designation of jaguar critical habitat to protect these important corridors.
Historically, jaguars had a wide ranging habitat in the U.S. extending from southern California to the Grand Canyon and across Texas, but deforestation, draining wetlands and hunting by intolerant ranchers drove the cats south, restricting their range to the southernmost edge of Arizona and New Mexico. Jaguars’ current habitat ranges from the southwest U.S. hugging the border, south through Mexico, Central America, and the northern tip of Argentina. The cats prefer forested habitat for camouflage and climbing and streams for swimming, but their build enables them to crawl through and blend into the scrub brush habitat, characteristic of the southwest U.S.
Since jaguars were nearly wiped out from the U.S. in the 20th century, sporadic sightings over the past twenty years in the Peloncillo and San Luis Mountains have excited wildlife-lovers across the country. These sightings emphasize the importance of protecting the very habitat that is now being challenged. Instead of intolerance, we need to encourage coexistence between ranchers and wildlife, including large predators like jaguars. The FWS’ designation of critical habitat for jaguars will help ensure a “right of way” into the U.S. for these amazing cats, and it must be defended.