A judge on Tuesday ordered federal wildlife officials to reconsider how to help endangered jaguars survive, saying the decision to not protect habitat for them was based on bad criteria and inconsistent with the Endangered Species Act.
The largest cats native to the Western hemisphere live primarily in Mexico, Central and South America. But they're known to roam in southern Arizona and New Mexico, and one was captured for the first time southeast of Tucson last month.
The Interior Department abandoned a recovery plan for the endangered species in 2008 after concluding too few of the cats had been spotted to warrant it. Its agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, contends U.S. land represents less than 1 percent of the species' range, so its survival depends on other nations.
U.S. District Judge John Roll said in his ruling that Fish and Wildlife did not use the best scientific evidence available in not establishing critical habitat for the species. He also cited inconsistency with the Endangered Species Act's mandate, Fish and Wildlife's own regulations and relevant case law.
"Denying the jaguar protection because it is overly endangered is an oxymoron," said Michael Robinson, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "That was the essence of the government's plan, that there are so few jaguars that they don't need a recovery plan. And the judge saw right through that."
The judge gave the federal agency until Jan. 8 to review his ruling and make a decision on designating critical habitat and preparing a recovery plan.
"The court recognized that this was going to be a difficult determination and therefore gave us nine months," Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jeff Humphrey said.
The jaguar caught in Arizona last month was outfitted with a satellite tracking collar, but was euthanized just a few weeks later because of symptoms of kidney failure.
Robinson said several so-called Sky Island mountain ranges in southern Arizona and New Mexico could be designated as critical habitat and recovery areas.