Major jaguar biologist opposes plan

Federal critical habitat idea won't help cats, Alan Rabinowitz says
2013-02-09T00:00:00Z Major jaguar biologist opposes planTony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 09, 2013 12:00 am  • 

A wildlife biologist at the forefront of global jaguar conservation is one of the most outspoken critics of a federal proposal for critical habitat for the jaguar.

Wildlife biologist Alan Rabinowitz is founder and CEO of the global, New York City-based wildcat conservation group known as Panthera. He has written a book about his efforts to save the jaguar and was featured on a PBS/National Geographic TV special, "In Search of the Jaguar." He's been called the "Indiana Jones of Wildlife Protection" by Time Magazine for what it called his freewheeling, tireless and courageous approach to the issue. He got the first jaguar preserve created in the Western Hemisphere, in Belize in 1984.

But among the 150-plus comments submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the jaguar habitat proposal, Rabinowitz's criticism was among the harshest, saying it lacks scientific credibility and is unsupported by data, and that Mexico and points south constitute far superior jaguar habitat.

He was the only one of seven peer reviewers the wildlife service asked to comment on its proposal who submitted an objection. It's not his first shot. In 2010, after the service announced it would propose critical habitat, he criticized that decision on the New York Times op-ed page.

Four other peer reviewers, including Profs. Robert Steidl of the University of Arizona and Paul Beier at Northern Arizona University, expressed varying degrees of support. A fifth, David Mattson of the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, took no clear-cut stance, but rebutted some of Rabinowitz's views. The sixth, Prof. Michael Tewes at Texas A&M University, opposes critical habitat but said he lacked time to submit a comment.

Assumptions "incorrect"

Rabinowitz has supporters among ranchers, the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, several soil, water and natural resource conservation districts and other people and groups.

Those who disagree with him include numerous environmental groups, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, where Rabinowitz was director of the science and conservation program before founding Panthera, and the Society of Conservation Biology. The National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service not only favor critical habitat, they argue it should be expanded beyond the 838,000 acres the wildlife service has proposed.

In Rabinowitz's critique, he wrote that the proposal is "unfounded and not supported by available data."

"The assumptions and speculations put forth in this document are, in my opinion, often incorrect and not in the best interests of either the jaguar or the people of the United States."

He concluded, in capital letters, "THE UNITED STATES DOES NOT CONTAIN HABITAT THAT IS CRITICAL TO THE SURVIVAL OF THE JAGUAR AS A SPECIES! DESIGNATING CRITICAL HABITAT FOR THE JAGUAR IN THE UNITED STATES IS AN ABUSE OF THE TRUE INTENT OF THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT AND A WASTE OF U.S. TAXPAYER FUNDS."

In between, he opined that this area contains no "essential" jaguar habitat, because few jaguars have been documented in this country since the 1960s and there's been no breeding or resident jaguar population since the early 1900s. "Essential" is a key part of the legal definition of critical habitat.

Climate Change questions

Rabinowitz noted that most recent jaguar sightings in the U.S. have been of males, generally seen no more than once or twice. These were most likely dispersing males, up from Mexico, he wrote.

As for jaguar Macho B, who spent considerable time in this country on and off from 1996 until his 2009 death, Rabinowitz saw his wide-ranging presence as another sign of Southern Arizona's weakness as jaguar habitat.

"Macho B may in fact have taken up residency in the U.S., or he might have still ranged south of the border," Rabinowitz wrote. "In any case, his unusually large minimum ranging area in the U.S., based on camera trap photos, are indicative of a jaguar living under suboptimal conditions in terms of food and reproduction."

Tewes, who also is opposed to critical habitat, said in an email to the Star that he believes it isn't necessary and won't help jaguars "in a meaningful way."

Beier, who favors creating a critical habitat, acknowledged that it's debatable whether U.S. habitat is critical for jaguar recovery. It's plausible jaguars here could be adequately protected by securing their populations in four Mexican states including Sonora, he said.

But because of climate change, it's also plausible that parts of the U.S. could become critical for jaguars, wrote Beier, of NAU's Forestry School.

Since so many jaguars were were killed by people in the 1900s, "jaguars almost certainly occupied and reproduced in southern Arizona in the late 19th and early 20th century," Beier wrote.

Mogollon rim's value

Eric Gese, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Research Center in Logan, Utah, said the service needs to expand its critical habitat proposal north into the Mogollon Rim and Mogollon Plateau.

The proposal now stops at Interstate 10, but expanding it would increase the likelihood of having enough space for this far-ranging carnivore to recover, wrote Gese .

UA's Mattson echoed that view, saying the rim's value as jaguar habitat is supported by two reports on jaguars - in contrast with Rabinowitz's view that this country's jaguar habitat was always marginal.

UA's Steidl acknowledged that it's "fundamentally challenging" to identify critical habitat for a species like the jaguar that's at the limits of its range.

But overall, he found the process the service used to pick critical habitat "logical, consistent and reasonable."

He called the exclusion of the Mogollon Rim area reasonable, given its distance from northern Mexico breeding jaguars.

Finally, reviewer Kenneth Logan, a Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife mammals researcher, said the service has "soundly used" published jaguar biology information from the Southwest and Northern Mexico.

But an upcoming federal economic analysis of proposed critical habitat will be just as important, he wrote.

"It will be the acceptance or tolerance of the people affected in the region that can make jaguar conservation in the southwestern U.S. a success," he wrote.

On StarNet: Read more environment-related articles at azstarnet.com/environment

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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