Court rejects jaguar critical habitat designation

A federal appeals court ruled last week that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of critical habitat for the jaguar (Panthera onca) was invalid, finding that the agency acted inappropriately in its 2014 critical habitat designation.

The court ruled that the Service did not follow its internal policy at the time. That policy was only to designate unoccupied critical habitat when a designation limited to its present range would be inadequate to ensure conservation of the species. The agency also “did not follow its own regulations or provide a rational explanation for failing to do so,” the judge said.

The jaguar ranges throughout the southwestern United States, Mexico, Central America and South America. It was first listed in 1972, under a precursor to the Endangered Species Act, as an endangered foreign species. In 1992, both domestic and foreign populations were listed as endangered under the ESA.

In 2014, the Service designated 764,207 acres in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona as critical habitat essential for jaguar conservation. That decision was challenged by the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association and New Mexico Federal Lands Council, who argued that the designation would affect their grazing permits, as well as construction of stock ponds and fencing. Their lawsuit focused on approximately 10,000 acres in New Mexico’s Peloncillo and San Luis mountains.

The trial court sided with the agency, ruling in 2017 that the designation was within the Service’s authority. The ranching groups appealed, leading to the recent decision.

The Service has indicated recently its intention to provide updated guidance on the definition of habitat. Neither the ESA nor its implementing regulations include a definition for the term, which plays a key role in conservation of threatened and endangered species.

During last year’s ESA regulatory changes, Department of the Interior officials indicated that a definition for habitat was forthcoming. In addition, a recent lawsuit highlighted the need for this key term to be defined.

Header Image: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s critical habitat for jaguar was invalidated by a federal court.
©Bernard Dupont