Monday, March 24, 2008

Jaguar Interruptus

Earlier this year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided that developing a jaguar recovery plan was just too much work. The few sightings of jaguars in Arizona proved that the jags were from Mexico, and therefore there was no viable population in the United States to develop. Yet, this is exactly what the Endangered Species Act as well as scientifically sound reintroduction programs are exactly about. What USFWS is saying just doesn’t make any sense until you understand that, once again, the policy was developed to meet human political needs, regardless of its impact on wildlife.

If USFWS had decided otherwise, it would not only have had to dedicate resources to a task it has been reluctant to do for almost a decade; but it would have run “head-to-head” into the Department of Homeland Security and its crazy idea of fortifying the southern American border by building a fence. Indeed, one of the unfortunate yet totally unstudied aspects of the border fence is its impact on wildlife. Such an impact is not limited to Arizona but exists wherever a state in this great country brushes up against the Mexican border. Big Bend National Park’s bear population is a great example of cross-border movement; for many years, there were no bears in the park but they showed up again in the early to mid nineties after venturing back from Mexico. Today, even though the bear population swells and recedes based on conditions both in the park and its southern neighbor, dealing with bear boxes is a fact of life for the camper almost anywhere in the park. The park just never knows where the bears are going to be or how many of them there are.

This same type of movement can be expected of the jaguar. While conditions in Mexico have been more favorable for a breeding population there than here, there is no way the USFWS can know whether that might change. Therefore, if the population or parts of it did move north, having a recovery plan in place to possibly enable the re-establishment of a US population seems like a wise thing to pursue. But, of course, by taking the stand they have, USFWS has not only dodged the legal and ethical entanglements they might face with the border fence, but they have ensured that a jaguar population will not re-establish itself here, making for more “feet-up” time back in the office. What bureaucrat would not want that?

The only hope for change is that a lawsuit being brought against USFWS by several environmental groups that would force USFWS to establish a recovery plan succeeds. It’s time the country and the courts look more critically at the border fence, not only because of its impact on local families and economies but the impact on wildlife as well. It’s easy to talk about security and prey on people’s fears to come up with solutions that at least sound good and make the government look like it’s doing something productive. It’s a lot harder to take all the complex issues involved and come up with a lasting and comprehensive solution, one that takes into account the harm the action also will do. That hasn’t been done with the border fence nor with the USFWS decision that, when it comes to jaguars, pays for it to sit on its collective ass.

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