I am thrilled to present this Q&A with Tony Povilitis. Tony is one of the long-time advocates for Southwest jaguars and his opinions are sure to be of interest. I thank Tony very much for taking the time to answer my questions!
1. Please tell us a little bit about your background and education.
I grew up as a Brooklyn (NY) kid always wanting to be at the park or botanical gardens looking for frogs, rabbits, insects, and any other surprise that these green places had to offer. I discovered the beauty and value of nature and, as a 17-year old, got a one way ticket to Montana to study forestry. I eventually earned a Ph.D. in wildlife biology, after working overseas for a number of years. Since that time, I’ve worked for a host of agencies, private business, and conservation organizations, and founded the non-profit organization Life Net in the early1990s. I’ve been lucky to have lived and worked in places where I could experience some of the best of the natural world. It’s been a huge part of my life. The most sobering part of my overall education is witnessing in my lifetime the dramatic loss of wildlife habitat and open country, along with tremendous growth of the human population in the US and worldwide. I am deeply saddened that so much of wildlife and nature continues to disappear, and that there is no end in sight to human demands on the environment.
2. How did you become interested in the status of jaguars in the Southwest?
About seventeen years ago, I was teaching a university field class on wildlife in southern Arizona and New Mexico. The students and I were reviewing the conservation status of wild mammals when we discovered that a jaguar was recently killed by a rancher just miles from where we were camped. We were shocked to find that the species, a magnificent large cat native to the southern US, was not on the list of US endangered species and had no federal protection!
3. Please tell us about your involvement in the 1992 petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the jaguar as endangered in the United States.
My class and I wrote the petition by hand and sent it off to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). It was a no-brainer. Here was an animal that was endangered worldwide, extremely vulnerable to the bullet and to habitat loss, and historically bred in the U.S. Five years later, after legal prodding by the Center for Biological Diversity, the USFWS finally listed the jaguar as domestically endangered. But the story of my involvement didn’t end there. As it turned out, while the Service listed the species, it did so without designating critical habitat needed to conserve the species (normally a requirement under the US Endangered Species Act [ESA]). In 1999, I took another class to the field in southern Arizona. Those students, encouraged with what earlier students had accomplished in 1992, decided to send a request to the USFWS to designate critical habitat for jaguar. The request turned out to be a seven page report and class project that included preliminary identification of important habitat areas in southern Arizona and New Mexico, taking into account vegetation, topography, jaguar prey and water availability, and the size and connectivity of habitat units. That fall, the USFWS rejected the request, insisting that designation of critical habitat would not be beneficial to the jaguar. By then it became clear to me that current policy makers within USFWS, ironically the foremost agency responsible for endangered species recovery, would not pursue jaguar recovery in the US.
4. You have written that the Jag Team is guilty of “stonewalling” and “neglect” when it comes to habitat conservation work in the SW. How do you answer those people (some of whom have been featured on this blog) who say that designating critical habitat for the jaguar in the US is a bad idea?
I remember the start of meetings a dozen years ago of what was to become the Jaguar Conservation Team (JAGCT), led by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. I felt at that time a genuine sense of collaboration among agency officials and stakeholders to protect jaguars and conserve their habitat. Specific plans and timetables for doing so were drawn up in a “conservation agreement and strategy” released in 1997. In subsequent years, I assisted JAGCT by providing an initial report on jaguar habitat, preparing draft guidelines for assessing impacts on jaguar by land managers, and identifying the various risks and threats to jaguars in the southwestern US. All these tasks were part of the interagency agreement, but unfortunately the group as a whole did little to move the process forward. As years passed, I became dismayed by JAGCT’s lack of progress in achieving habitat conservation goals in deference to land development interests, property rights zealots, and hyped up concerns about potential ESA restrictions perceived by some ranchers. JAGCT’s habitat committee (of which I was a member) did manage to eventually complete its work on identifying jaguar habitat in 2006. On the heels of that, however, came the bombshell that smashed remaining hope for habitat conservation. JAGCT revised its conservation document, relegated it to the status of a politically correct “framework” and gutted or dropped timetables for key specifics of the habitat conservation work. To be frank, I felt betrayed by presiding Arizona Game and Fish officials, after being led to believe that habitat conservation was finally about to happen. By 2007, JAGCT had expanded its membership to include more organizations intent on curtailing habitat conservation initiatives in deference to other interests. It became abundantly clear to me that federally designated critical habitat was absolutely essential – without legal requirements nothing would get done. For the Center for Biological Diversity, patience had run out. It moved to take legal action against the USFWS for abdicating its responsibility to designate critical habitat and prepare an official recovery plan. Critical habitat designation under the ESA means that federal agencies would ensure that any action authorized, funded, or carried out be them “is not likely to…result in the destruction or adverse modification” of essential habitat. It also helps direct conservation efforts to those habitat areas most in need of attention. Is it really needed? Well, Arizona’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy (2005) points to enormous problems facing wildlife in general from habitat loss due to development, habitat fragmentation and degradation from road and utility networks, increased demand for scarce water resources, a rapidly growing human population and corresponding outdoor activity, and other stressors on wildlife and habitat. So, to the skeptics I’d ask, how in the world will we be able to address the immense challenges poised by such development and other threats to jaguar habitat without using a principal tool in the endangered species conservation toolbox, namely critical habitat protection under the ESA? It’s like sending David to out against Goliath without his stone and sling! JAGCT has had its chance — I shutter to think of what opportunities may have been lost to conserve jaguar habitat since the group began deliberations over a decade ago. Indeed, other critics have aptly labeled it the “Jaguar Conversation Team”!
5. Can you discuss a little of what you call the “fear factor” regarding the Endangered Species Act, especially as it relates to SW jaguars?
I suggested in a 2002 review of the jaguar’s plight in the US (Endangered Species UPDATE Vol. 19, No. 5) that JAGCT embrace ESA protections for jaguar and get on with addressing the irrational fear of restrictions among some landowners that has been fueled by ideologues (particularly during the Bush years) seeking to politically sabotage genuine wildlife conservation in this country. There is tremendous misinformation about the ESA that state and federal wildlife officials have in many instances done little or nothing to abate.
6. In a recent letter to High Country News you urged “jaguar advocates of all stripes (and spots) to put aside differences and work for comprehensive protection of habitat and open country”. What exact conservation measures would you like to see taken? And what are the biggest stumbling blocks (i.e. differences) you see among jaguar advocates?
In a 1996 photographic essay on jaguar in southwestern New Mexico, rancher Warner Glen succinctly summed up the challenge noting that, “It will take all our efforts to protect this animal [jaguar] and the wide open country it needs”. Protecting open country on a scale that can ensure a future for jaguar (as well as a host of other imperiled species of the Southwest) will require aggressive conservation planning jointly pursued by government and the private sector. There are many tools available for controlling runaway land development and protecting wildlife habitat. Jaguar advocates need to vigorously apply them, and expand upon efforts such as Pima County’s (AZ) Sonoran Desert Protection Plan and the Arizona Wildlife Linkages Workgroup for protecting wildlife movement areas. Advocates need to think big (for a big cat!), in terms of a broad conservation campaign to win endorsement by US and Mexican governments and attract both public and private support. Options include the creation of a major borderlands conservation area, drawing on the experience of California’s Mojave Desert Conservation Area and Mexico’s biosphere reserves. Conservation science already tells us much about what habitat areas are most important for jaguar and other vulnerable wildlife. Obstacles to progress include the reluctance by some folks to acknowledge the magnitude of the habitat loss problem, the myth that piecemeal or small scale approaches alone can save the day for jaguar, and the mistaken notion that real progress toward jaguar conservation can be made without the help of the ESA.
7. Speaking hypothetically, if you had the power to do anything to conserve jaguars in the SW what would it be? Would you consider translocation of animals from Mexico?
As you might guess from my previous answer, I’d establish comprehensive conservation program for the Southwest to ensure protection of adequate habitat and open country for jaguar, other wildlife, and healthy human communities. The program would include measurable goals and outcomes, incentives to private landowners and county governments, and vigorous implementation of the ESA’s recovery plan and critical habitat provisions for endangered wildlife. With respect to bringing jaguars to the US borderlands area to help restore a jaguar population, a colleague and I broached the subject several years ago in a presentation at a Natural Areas Association meeting in Tucson (aware that the agencies for political reasons had taken this option off the table). Our conclusion was that a carefully planned experimental release of a small number of jaguars (i.e. breeding females) could 1) provide potential mates for male jaguars recently occurring in the U.S., 2) generate specific information on jaguar use of habitat and the hazards jaguars face in the wild (as the released animals would certainly be radio collared and carefully monitored); 3) increase public support for jaguar recovery (as people would be able to identify with the released jaguars and know that there are more animals out there to protect); and 4) offer an added incentive to advance a habitat conservation program. I think the public would support a release program if it had a sense of ownership in the project and a role in decision-making, and if there were built-in safeguards for respecting private property and against unreasonable restrictions on use of public lands. One technical issue is the source of the jaguars to be re-introduced. I believe there are reserves in Mexico and southward where the number of jaguars has reached the capacity of the habitat to support them. Migrating animals that would otherwise be lost as they attempted to go beyond the safe reserve boundaries would be the logical source for a translocation program.
8. What’s your opinion of the environmental impact of the border fence versus the litter, foot traffic, etc. of border foot traffic?
A border fence could dramatically curtail the “freedom to roam” needed by wildlife for dynamic, healthy populations. At the same time, the 24-7 traffic of backcountry border crossers and related law enforcement activity is no doubt also disrupting wildlife movement and normal behavioral patterns. I recently studied this problem for the National Park Service at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument., Arizona. For the jaguar at this time, an impermeable border fence would be the worse of two evils. Obviously, the best solution for jaguar and other wildlife would be no border fence and an end to illegal traffic across the border by other means. Ending heavy cross-border traffic will in my view require an effective foreign guest worker program, severe penalties throughout the US for employers of undocumented workers (thus cutting demand for such labor), no amnesty or special deals for violators of US immigration laws, and identity cards difficult to fake. I’m not optimistic, however, as opposition would be fierce from both ends of the political spectrum to such a comprehensive solution.
9. What do you think of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent decision not to prepare a recovery plan for the jaguar?
It’s a terrible decision. The USFWS claims that a recovery plan “would not advance” jaguar conservation because “the vast majority of jaguars and jaguar habitat lies south of the U.S.” We need to firmly reject this myopic view of endangered wildlife conservation. The USFWS position is dangerous in that it diverts conservation away from specific endangered populations in the US. The same restrictive reasoning could be used to justify inaction for a host of other endangered species whose current geographic ranges lie largely beyond the US. In contrast, the ESA emphases recovery of endangered species populations, particularly within the US. In the case of the jaguar, every population is important given that the species is endangered throughout its world range. The northern jaguar, historically extending from northern Mexico well into the southwestern US, is one of the most critically imperiled jaguar populations and desperately needs the benefit of a US recovery plan (a joint plan with Mexico would be ideal). This population, now largely relegated to northern Mexico, may ultimately depend on secure habitat in the US for its future (its original geographic range actually covered a larger area in the US than in Mexico). The American Society of Mammalogists, in a recent resolution calling for a federal recovery plan, expressed the view that habitats in the US “are vital to the long-term resilience and survival of the species, especially in response to ongoing climate change”. The US should not abdicate its responsibility to protect jaguar habitat, just as Mexico and other countries should not. We know that jaguars can do well in dry land habitats if they are not persecuted or crowded out by people, and as long as they have ample prey, sources of water, and hiding cover for security and rearing of young. With careful land and wildlife management, these habitat conditions can be firmly established in the American Southwest.
10. Please tell us a bit about your work with Life Net.
Over the years, Life Net has sponsored wildlife research and conservation in South America, currently of cloud forest birds in Ecuador. We also advocate for endangered species recovery and natural areas conservation in the US. We are essentially a “mom and pop” operation. Check out our website at http://www.lifenetnature.org.