updated 1/17/2008 10:28:44 PM ET 2008-01-18T03:28:44

The Interior Department has abandoned attempts to craft a recovery plan for the endangered jaguar because too few of the rare cats have been spotted in New Mexico and Arizona to warrant such action.

Some critics of the decision said Thursday the jaguar is being sacrificed for the government's new border fence, which is going up along many of the same areas where the cat has crossed into the United States from Mexico.

If the U.S. border areas were designated critical recovery areas for the jaguar, then it would constrain the Homeland Security Department in building the fence, said Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"That's the central issue here," Suckling said, not the explanation provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His group has a lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court in Phoenix asking the court to force the wildlife agency to develop a recovery plan.

Fish and Wildlife Director Dale Hall did not allude to the border fence when he quietly and with little notice signed a memorandum Jan. 7 approving the decision to halt development of a jaguar recovery plan. Suckling said his group learned of the decision only when a copy of the memo was filed in connection with the Phoenix court case.

Memo pushes responsibility to Latin America
The recovery of the jaguar, which has been under the protection of the Endangered Species Act since 1977, "depends on conservation efforts in Mexico and Central and South American," the memo says. Only "a small fraction" of the jaguar population and available habitat is in the United States, and no breeding areas have been confirmed, it says.

A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington referred calls to the Albuquerque regional office, which has primary responsibility for the jaguar recovery. A call there was not returned.

Benjamin Tuggle, regional director of the wildlife agency in Albuquerque, recommended in a Dec. 21 memo to Hall that the recovery efforts be abandoned, saying his office had concluded "that preparation of a recovery plan will not contribute to the conservation of the jaguar."

Tuggle said that while four male jaguars had been documented in the U.S. border region, the latest last year, no females have been confirmed there since 1963, indicating that "the United States does not support a separate breeding population" for the cat.

"Actions taken within the United States are likely to benefit a small number of individual jaguars peripheral to the species, with little potential to effect recovery of the species as whole," Tuggle wrote.

The jaguar's range extends from the Southwest United States into South America. Hundreds of the cats have been documented from Mexico across Central America. The most significant population in Mexico is believed to be about 150 miles south of the U.S. border.

Tuggle suggested that the recovery effort should be focused on Mexico and Central America, where the cat is more widely located and where it also is protected by law.

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