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Donald Trump’s presidency has intensified the debate over undocumented immigrants in the United States, but it’s the U.S. Forest Service that has environmentalists worried about the fate of another group suspected of surreptitiously crossing the U.S-Mexico border—jaguars.

In recent years, three of the spotted cats have been caught on cameras in Arizona, where they roam the mountainous wilderness rising out of the desert landscape. The most recent jaguar was spotted in southeast Arizona in March when he walked in front of a trail camera operated by the Bureau of Land Management in the Dos Cabezas Mountains. Another, named Yo’oko, was seen in the Huachuca Mountains in December. But the first, El Jefe, was discovered back in 2011, when he was considered the country’s only jaguar.

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Now some environmentalists claim his habitat is endangered by a proposed mine. Hudbay Minerals based in Toronto is seeking to develop an open pit mine to recover copper, silver, and molybdenum on private and National Forest System lands in the Coronado National Forest, about 30 miles southeast of Tucson, and earlier this month the U.S. Forest Service signed off on the plan.

The so-called Rosemont Mine is expected to produce an estimated 5.88 billion pounds of copper, according to a the Forest Service’s report detailing its decision to approve the mine. If Hudbay clinches the deal—pending in part a water permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—the mine will affect an estimated 5,431 acres of combined private, Arizona State Land Department and federal forest lands, including designated critical habitat for the jaguar. However, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the mine isn’t likely to jeopardize the species, nor adversely affect its habitat.

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Scott Brubacher, a spokesman for Hudbay Minerals, said the mine project, which includes a processing plant, transmission lines for power and water, and facilities for debris, would sit “at the extreme end of the jaguar species’ normal range.” And while the project would affect about 4,000 acres of the 830,000 acres of designated critical habitat, Brubacher said, Hudbay expects to spend more than $10 million on environmental protections in connection with the Rosemont Mine.

That doesn’t appease jaguar advocates like Rob Peters, a southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, which has filed several lawsuits against Fish and Wildlife to develop a recovery plan for the endangered species.

“With the looming threat of the expansion of the southern border wall, the construction of the Rosemont Mine is the last thing Southwestern wildlife and landscapes need,” said Peters. “Lights, noise, roads and other mine-related activity could affect an additional 228 square miles in and around critical jaguar habitat and block vital pathways for jaguar migration across the border.”

El Jefe spotted in September 2013. in The US Fish and Wildlife Service believes that the U.S. currently only supports dispersing or wandering male jaguars that are part of the jaguar population that includes northwestern Mexico.
USFWS

Putting a mine in the jaguar’s home range effectively cuts off a north-south corridor for the species, Peters said, and the federal government’s claim that Rosemont won’t harass them indicates that agencies charged with protecting vulnerable species are abdicating their responsibilities.

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In another instance of this issue rising to the forefront, In Alaska, the Environmental Protection Agency recently reversed an Obama-era decision to deny a permit to Pebble Limited Partnership for a minerals mine near Bristol Bay. The bay is home to a major salmon fishery, and environmentalists fear the mine endangers the fishery and ecosystem.

Long-term jaguar survival

At least seven male jaguars have traveled from Mexico to southern Arizona and New Mexico since 1996, according to a recent report by Defenders of Wildlife. Biologists believe they came from breeding grounds in Sonora, 125 miles south of the border, the report says, where a jaguar sanctuary is a refuge for the jaguars there—fewer than 100, according to estimates. Poaching threatens the jaguar population there, and researchers from Washington State University have documented accelerating deforestation of jaguar habitat that threatens the predator’s long-term survival.

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Most jaguars live in Mexico and Central and South America, and they need a lot of space: Males claim as much as 50 square miles of territory, according to the university, and can travel even farther to find new mates. But declining forest corridors in Central America could disconnect jaguars there from South America, potentially hampering genetic diversity and species stability.

The jaguar is the biggest cat in the Americas, weighing around 250 pounds and measuring six feet long, according to World Wildlife Fund. They’re solitary creatures that walk slowly and watch and listen for prey, which can range from animals the size of an armadillo to a cow. The name jaguar derives from the Native American word yaguar, which means “he who kills with one leap.” To kill large prey, jaguars often bite through the skull between the ears. El Jefe is credited with felling a bear.

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The U.S. Forest Service did not respond to questions about the mine and the jaguar population. But not everyone agrees that jaguars merit critical habitat. In 2010, after Fish and Wildlife announced it would designate such habitat for the species, the president of Panthera, which seeks to conserve the wild cats in the world, said that the decision was wrongheaded. Alan Rabinowitz was among the biologists who had urged Fish and Wildlife to list the jaguar as an endangered species (and the agency did in 1977), but declining to determine critical habitat for the cat was prudent, he wrote in The New York Times.

“Even though they cross the border from time to time, jaguars don’t occupy any territory in our country—and that probably means the environment here is no longer ideal for them,” he said. Jaguars used to inhabit significant areas of the western United States, he added, but the country is no longer essential to its conservation.

Another group hoping to conserve the global wild cat population, Conservation CATalyst, is fighting for jaguar recovery in the United States by supporting a plan that includes protecting border land from fragmentation and mining activities like Rosemont.

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“What other species, having once been extirpated from an entire region, and having returned under its own power and volition, is then written off as biologically insignificant, or is deemed expendable because there are other jaguars in South America?” the organization states online. “Arizona also has bald eagles. Are they unimportant because there are eagles in Alaska? Is their habitat expendable because it doesn’t look like eagle habitat in Canada? Why the double standard with our one and only Big Cat?”

For the time being, El Jefe is MIA. He was last seen in 2016, suggesting he could be dead—or back in Mexico.