New Mexico ranchers, farmers sue feds over move to set aside habitat for endangered jaguar

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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — The setting aside of more than 170 square miles in New Mexico as critical habitat for the endangered jaguar was an "unlawful, arbitrary and capricious" action by federal authorities and needs to be overturned, a new lawsuit says.

In court papers filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association and New Mexico Federal Lands Council said the decision by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set aside public and private land for the cat would place unnecessary regulations on landowners.

In addition, the designation of the critical habitat violates the Endangered Species Act because the area "was not occupied when the jaguar was listed as an endangered species, and is not essential for jaguar conservation," the lawsuit said.

"Clearly, the government doesn't have the luxury of careless overreach when it comes to roping off property as critical habitat," said attorney Tony Francois, who is with the Sacramento, California-based Pacific Legal Foundation and is representing the groups suing. "But that's exactly what we see with the jaguar habitat designation in New Mexico."

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Lesli Gray said the agency couldn't comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit seeks attorneys' fees and for a federal judge to overturn the critical habitat designation.

In March 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set aside nearly 1,200 square miles along the U.S.-Mexico border as habitat essential for the conservation of the jaguar. Federal officials acknowledged last year when they made the designation that no female jaguars or breeding had been documented in the U.S. in more than 50 years.

Jaguars have been on the federal endangered species list for nearly two decades, but it took a series of lawsuits filed by environmentalists to prompt the critical habitat designation.

Despite only a handful of male jaguars being spotted in the Southwest over the years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the region's desert scrub, mesquite grasslands and oak woodlands make for important habitat.

One male jaguar has made numerous appearances on wildlife cameras in Arizona's Santa Rita Mountains over the past year. In New Mexico, there hasn't been a sighting in nine years.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said the designation merely brings back the jaguar to its natural habitat of the American Southwest and doesn't try to reintroduce the animal to other parts of the U.S., where it also once lived.

"We're talking about a tiny sliver of land here," Robinson said.

But Reed Hopper, another attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, said the federal government still will have "veto power" over how private landowners use their property.

"Anything they deem as harmful to the endangered species, like building a fence ... the federal government can veto," he said.


Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras .

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