DHS-funded jaguar study could be model for future predator rescues

As part of its broader effort to protect jaguars in the Southwest, the Fish and Wildlife Service is using more than $200,000 from the Department of Homeland Security to fund two opinion surveys -- a novel approach to species recovery that FWS officials believe could help improve future programs aimed at conserving imperiled predators.

DHS's Customs and Border Protection -- the program's unusual benefactor -- didn't agree to fund the surveys because the endangered jaguars pose a threat to national security. Quite the opposite: Citizens living along the U.S.-Mexico border and the federal agency charged with policing that boundary pose some of the biggest challenges to re-establishing the wild cats in this country.

"The primary threat to jaguars is human hunting, poaching and poisonings," FWS spokesman Jeff Humphrey said. To reduce those dangers, he said, "we need to understand people's attitudes toward jaguar conservation."

With that goal in mind, the service has proposed surveys that will gauge attitudes of cattle ranchers and others in southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico -- the areas of the United States where jaguars are occasionally sighted (Greenwire, Dec. 21, 2012). Public outreach efforts like these, Humphrey acknowledged, "are not common."

The ranchers' survey, which is expected to cost the federal government $150,361, was approved by the White House on Aug. 7. It is being conducted by the University of Arizona and will examine 228 landowners' knowledge of jaguars and interest in taking part in efforts to protect them.

The White House's Office of Management and Budget is reviewing a similar $64,699 knowledge and attitude survey of 200 residents. If it is approved, the Harris Environmental Group, a small consulting firm in Tucson, Ariz., will seek out 100 responses from household representatives, 60 from private-sector workers, and 40 from state, local and tribal government officials.

Funding for these innovative studies is left over from a $50 million deal that DHS signed in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration with the Department of the Interior, which oversees FWS. Then-Customs Commissioner W. Ralph Basham entered into the agreement -- amid considerable public pressure -- after former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff invoked a series of congressionally authorized exemptions to environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act in order to speed construction of border fencing (Land Letter, Jan. 22, 2009).

The deal included an account of proposals to protect rare plants and animals harmed by the new border security measures, Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Erlinda Byrd explained in an email. Interior "provided CBP with a list of proposed 'conservation actions,' which are projects that DOI identified as the most effective in addressing impacts from fence construction," she said.

"CBP and DOI mutually agreed that the mitigation funds would be made available to fund conservation actions in 'increments' over several fiscal years," she added. "The jaguar study is among the conservation actions that have been funded by CBP."

Survey worries green group


The agencies' agreement specifically set aside $2.035 million for jaguar monitoring, conservation and recovery, according to a project description worksheet provided to Greenwire. That pool of money was used to address the research needs of scientists working for FWS, who first called for a survey of ranchers in early 2012. "Results of this study will be used to inform the implementation of future recovery actions in the U.S.," the scientists wrote in their jaguar recovery outline, an interim document FWS officials are relying on while they assemble a full recovery plan.

The outline also notes that DHS's border security construction could harm the endangered cats. "Fences designed to prevent the passage of humans across the border also prevent passage of jaguars," the scientists wrote.

"Because jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico are believed to be part of a population centered in northern Mexico, impeding jaguar movement from Mexico to the U.S. would likely adversely affect the presence and persistence of jaguars in the U.S.," they said.

Even though Mexico is home to only about 500 of the estimated 10,000 jaguars left in the wild, the cats actually evolved in North America. By the mid-1950s, though, habitat loss and hunting had decimated the population of jaguars living in the U.S.

The muscular, brownish-yellow animals, which have fur marked by flowerlike patterns of black spots, are the biggest cats native to the Americas. They can grow up to 8 feet long from nose to tail and weigh as much as 300 pounds -- only lions and tigers are larger.

CBP agents' pursuit of people attempting to avoid barriers along the border might have adverse impacts on these wild cats, the outline added. "Fences may cause an increase in illegal traffic and subsequent law enforcement activities in areas where no fence exists. This activity may limit jaguar movement across the border and result in general disturbance to jaguars and degradation of their habitat."

The DHS settlement has also funded about 10 different jaguar-related contracts for things like a big cats photo-monitoring program, a study of the effects of roadways on jaguars and other wild cats, and some feline genetics research, Humphrey said.

But the use of public surveys before the agency has issued a formal recovery plan for the jaguar has some environmentalists worried.

"We certainly don't believe that people's attitudes should determine whether recovery takes place or not," said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, an activist group that's frequently at odds with FWS.

Earlier this year, CBD litigation forced the service to designate 760,000 acres of land along the border as "critical habitat" for the jaguars (Greenwire, March 5). That means federal agencies now have to consult with FWS on actions they carry out, fund or authorize within that area to ensure those activities won't destroy or degrade the land's usefulness for the endangered cats.

CBD celebrated that decision but is still critical of FWS's broader effort. "Sadly, the Fish and Wildlife Service has not been very affirmative and proactive in developing a recovery plan for the jaguar," Robinson added, noting that the cat was originally placed on the international endangered species list in 1972 -- even before the passage of the Endangered Species Act. "So we're very interested in exactly how the results would come to specific actions that would need to be taken to recover the jaguar."

Humphrey suggested environmentalists have nothing to worry about. He predicted that the draft recovery plan would likely be released "this coming year," before the surveys could be completed and taken into consideration.

"Is there information that could come from this survey that could help inform the recovery plan?" he asked, before answering the question. "Under the current timelines, probably not."

'Public buy-in'

Regardless, FWS believes the surveys will still be of great value to the wild cat's long-term recovery effort.

"This information is pretty important because the jaguar is pretty controversial," said Mary Anderson, an FWS border mitigation coordinator.

"There's a lot of concern by the public regarding the presence of jaguars in their area, and we're just trying to find out what those concerns are so that we can educate the public."

For instance, she said, if people don't realize that jaguars mainly eat deer and javelinas, then that fact could "lessen concerns of the public regarding the threat of jaguars to humans."

Ultimately, Anderson said, "recovery of endangered species also includes a public component. If we don't get public buy-in, it's difficult."

Getting widespread support for conservation efforts is easier with some endangered species than others, Humphrey noted.

As a result, "there are a number of species that are more socially benign where doing this sort of study would not be appropriate," he said. "However, for something that has a broad range and stigma, such as a predator or a jaguar, it'd be very helpful for us to understand people's attitudes toward the animal as well as toward its conservation."

The main question these surveys -- and potentially future ones based on them -- will try to address, the FWS spokesman said, is "for a species whose primary threat has been poaching, how is it that you can affect social change to reduce that threat?"

Even though results from the jaguar surveys are many months away, other predator conservation efforts are already considering public polling as a way to answer that question. For example, a critical outside review of the red wolf recovery program recommended a survey of residents to learn more about their attitudes toward wolf conservation and to rebuild trust with the community in the wolves' recovery area (E&ENews PM, Nov. 20).

Twitter: @corbinhiar | Email: chiar@eenews.net

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