Michael Robinson Q&A

Another person who has been extremely generous with his time and knowledge is Michael Robinson who works for the Center for Biological Diversity, the organization whose advocacy resulted in the jaguar being placed on the endangered species list in the United States in 1997. Over the years he has answered my numerous jaguar questions with kindness and patience. Michael is the author of Predatory Bureaucracy : the extermination of wolves and the transformation of the West, (University Press of Colorado, 2005), praised by reviewers as “bringing history to life”, “a work of tremendous scholarship, and “a beautifully written book that captures the feel of Western landscapes and the ethos of early 20th-century America with an eloquence unusual for a weighty, scholarly book.” Robinson lives in rural southwestern New Mexico.

I hope to continue this feature with other jaguar researchers, advocates and fanatics. I thank Michael for being willing to take the time to answer my questions!

I (SWJags) sent Michael (MR) several jaguar-related questions and here are his replies:

SWJags: How did you get involved in carnivore conservation?

MR: I was thumbing through the State of Colorado statute book and stumbled on
still-extant bounties for wolves and other creatures. I started reading
about persecution of wolves, helped found and lead an organization to
restore wolves to Colorado, and eventually wrote a book about the politics,
intricate planning, opposition to, and effects on the ground of wolf
extermination and reintroduction.

SWJags: How do you see the status of the jaguar in the SW? Transient males,
small breeding population, etc?

MR: The official version of events is that all the jaguars spotted and
photographed in southern Arizona and New Mexico are transient males from
Mexico. The last confirmed female jaguar in the Southwest was killed in
1963 in the Apache National Forest (almost 200 miles from the border with
Mexico). A juvenile jaguar was killed in 1965 in the same area, implying
reproduction after 1963.

More recently, the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project has confirmed that
at least one jaguar has resided in an extended range in the U.S. for at
least ten years now, and suggests he would not have stayed without a female
within his range. Only a tiny portion of the vast public lands of
southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico are being systematically
monitored for the presence of jaguars, so it is premature to conclude that
there is no female jaguar in the U.S. and no jaguar kittens peeking out of
their den and exploring their world this summer.

SWJags: What is your opinion of the proposed border fence?

MR: The “fence” that they are proposing is really a double-layered impenetrable
steel wall. This will not solve the problem of human immigration. As New
Mexico Governor Bill Richardson likes to say, “If you build a 10-foot fence,
someone will use an 11-foot ladder.”

But it will block jaguars and at least thirty other imperiled species
ranging from the Sonoran pronghorn antelope to the cactus ferruginous pygmy
owl, species whose survival depends on cross-border influx of diverse
genetic material. The existing infrastructure of the border has already
changed animals’ behaviors and distribution. Extending it further,
especially into some of the known migration corridors for jaguars, would be
catastrophic.

The good news is it seems support for the wall is declining. Americans
understand that simplistic, hugely expensive responses to the complex
conundrum of illegal immigration will cause more problems than they solve.

There’s a hunger to get at the root causes of our border problems, and
nowhere stronger than close to the border itself. In the 2006 congressional
elections in Arizona, two prominent advocates for the wall, one a long-time
incumbent, were defeated; border policy was very much on the ballot. People
in the Southwest value the open landscape, and value the possibility of
jaguars, and are not willing to give that up so quickly.

SWJags: What about the plan to collar a jaguar in the US?

MR: This is another instance in which what sounds appealing gets less so the
more one learns about it. We all like the notion of hands-on conservation,
in part because so much of professional wildlife biology today involves
staring into computer screens. The notion of getting one’s hands on a
cryptic animal, not harming it, but monitoring its movements through high
tech gizmos feels like progress.

It’s worth asking several questions: What conservation actions will take
place as a result of the information from radio collaring? What are the
chances of injuring or killing a jaguar through capture in attempting to
collar it — and even if that probability is low, what are the consequences
in a tiny jaguar population if that were to happen? Will poachers use
telemetry receivers that the Mexican wolf field team has distributed to wolf
haters, to locate jaguars as well? What alternative ways of gathering
information are available?

The present photo-monitoring project has informed managers of some of the
mountain ranges and some of the habitats jaguars use. Another potential
source of information is the use of scat-sniffing hounds that can be trained
to distinguish between jaguar and mountain lion feces (just as trained
hounds in Montana distinguish grizzly from black bear scats). Jaguar scat
can then be collected for DNA analysis and reveal the identities and sex of
individual jaguars, and open up secrets to their culinary habits. These
techniques offer no risk of injuring a jaguar.

It’s worth also considering that the state and federal governments have
resolutely resisted any protection for jaguar habitat or for individual
jaguars. The Jaguar Conservation Team has not even taken a stance against
walling off the border. It’s not because they’re not aware that jaguars
in the U.S. are absolutely dependent on jaguars in Mexico. Livestock industry
opposition to protecting habitat, and not lack of scientific information, is
the reason that the state, federal and local agencies that make up the
do-nothing Jaguar “Conversation” Team have not protected a single acre
of habitat for jaguars in the ten years of the team’s existence. Will
radio-collaring a jaguar suddenly induce recalcitrant government agencies to
engage in conservation?

SWJags: Please give your feelings on critical habitat in the US.

MR: I have positive feelings about critical habitat. When I hike alongside the
Gila River near my arid mountain home, in the dappled shade of cottonwoods,
alders, box elders, sycamores and walnut trees and listening to bird songs,
I recollect that 20 years previously — before critical habitat was
designated for the southwestern willow flycatcher, loach minnow and
spikedace — all the saplings were trampled and eaten by cattle and the land
was sad and denuded. Seeing the changes gives me tangible hope.

Jaguars need protected homes in order to survive, raise their kittens, and
resume their role in the ecosystems in which they lived for thousands of
years. The definition of critical habitat in the Endangered Species Act is
the areas “essential for the conservation of the species.” Conservation
means recovery in the Act. The law requires a biological finding that
federally funded or conducted activities will not adversely modify critical
habitat. The law also instructs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to
designate critical habitat for endangered species concurrently with their
placement on the endangered species list. Not surprisingly, a study in the
peer-reviewed journal Bioscience reveals that animals and plants with
critical habitat designated for them are almost twice as likely to be making
progress toward recovery as those without.

The American Society of Mammalogists has formally endorsed critical habitat
designation for jaguars in the United States, stating that “habitats for
jaguars in the United States, including Arizona and New Mexico, are vital to
the long-term resilience and survival of the species, especially in response
to ongoing climate change.”

SWJags: What do you see as the greatest threat to jaguars in the SW?

MR: The wall that is intended to block off the entire Arizona border is without
doubt the greatest threat to jaguars in the U.S. But other threats are also
significant, including habitat destruction here in the Southwest. And we
shouldn’t forget about the peril of predator control — that is, the
organized (but not always well-targeted) attempt to kill one or more species
of carnivores on behalf of the livestock industry.

At the center of the network of trappers, shooters, den-diggers, poisoners,
stockmen’s associations, local farm bureaus, and state agricultural and game
agencies is the secretive and surreptitious USDA Wildlife Service’s agency.
The agency has been limited in the poisons and traps it can place in a small
portion of jaguar habitat, but it appears jaguars roam far beyond these
small, semi-protected areas. Shockingly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
(which until 1985 was itself the nation’s predator control agency) has given
a permit to USDA Wildlife Services to “accidentally” injure or kill one
jaguar.

SWJags: Anything else you’d like to add?

MR: There are few animals that have been persecuted so thoroughly, and then
their former presence so completely effaced, than the jaguar. Jaguars
evolved in North America, as fossil remains from as far afield as Washinton
State, Nebraska and Maryland reveal. They colonized Central and South America, and then
their range contracted southward until, in historic times, they were found
from California to the Carolinas, and only as far north as Monterey Bay, the
Grand Canyon, the headwaters of the South Platte River in Colorado, and
northern Texas. That was all natural, but habitat destruction and
persecution have eliminated them from all but a small portion of New Mexico
and Arizona. What the jaguar badly needs is development of a recovery plan
that will ensure their repatriation to many of their old ecosystems in the
United States. Unfortunately, we’re not going to see leadership from the
anti-wildlife Bush Administration nor internally from a Fish and Wildlife
Service that has badly lost its way. That’s why the work of the Center for
Biological Diversity is so crucial.

I hope people who want to see jaguars survive and recover in the U.S. will
consider joining the Center for Biological Diversity as dues-paying members.
Together, we will ensure that big, spotted cats will always be a part of our
heritage and our wild landscapes.

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