With a scratch of a pen, President Trump could've very literally closed the door on any jaguars hoping to make a home in the American Southwest. The jaguar, extirpated from the United States since the mid-20th century, has been making some attempts at a comeback, with some gingerly creeping across the border from Mexico into Arizona and New Mexico.
Heartened conservationists have kept a close watch on this slow migration, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released a conservation plan this past December aimed at restoring the jaguar in America. An anvil seemed to fall upon these efforts this week, however, with President Trump's executive order to move ahead with construction of a wall along the border with Mexico.
Despite their popularity, big cats are a persecuted bunch. All seven species of big cats are classified as either threatened or endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
For jaguars, the largest feline in North America, the American experience has been particularly harsh. The spotted cats historically stretched all the way from Argentina up to the American Southwest, California, and even east to Louisiana. But habitat loss and systematic extermination intended to protect livestock wiped them out. The last female was shot in 1963. The last male was shot and killed in 1986.
After a decade of no jaguars, ambitious males started wandering across the border sometime around 1996. Seven individual cats have been spotted in the US since then. Some have crossed into the US and then gone back to Mexico. Some perished. But one loner is a permanent resident: a male nicknamed "el jefe" or "the boss," that has been living in the Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona since 2013.
Excitement was palpable in early December too, when a possible new jaguar was photographed near Fort Huachuca in southeastern Arizona.
Jaguars are apex predators—top of the food chain—that provide irreplaceable functions to the ecosystem. The disappearance of apex predators around the globe has been a hallmark of humankind, but their loss is much more than aesthetic. Recent science has shown that ecosystems might in fact be driven top-down by these predators, and not bottom-up like previously thought. Animals like jaguars could influence processes as diverse as the dynamics of disease, wildfire, and even carbon sequestration.
These benefits are not lost on the USFWS. Last month, they released a full jaguar recovery plan that aims to make it easier for agencies and organizations in the US and Mexico to align their efforts at restoring jaguar habitat along the border—which includes keeping corridors intact so the cats can move back and forth freely. Mexico already has its own recovery plan for its jaguar inhabitants, so USFWS hopes to work closely with them.
There's just one problem: President Trump's plan to build a wall along the entire 2,000 mile border with Mexico. There are infinite logistical and financial obstacles still standing in the way of such a barrier actually being built, but if it did go up, that would be tantamount to a bullet in the head for jaguar restoration in the United States—and any hope of ever having jaguars in the US again for that matter. It would also be an ecological disaster—ripping populations and fragile ecosystems apart.
In order for jaguars to come back to America, they need to have suitable habitat available north of the border, and free movement to come and go as they please. Louise Misztal, biologist and executive director of conservation non-profit Sky Island Alliance in Arizona, told me that, "Jaguars are wide ranging and in an arid environment they need to be moving around to get to prey and water resources."
What's more, shutting the door on jaguars also limits their ability to adapt to a changing climate. A Trump wall would present, "Just another big barrier when they're already faced with this threat," she said.
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