Environmental groups threaten to sue federal government over protections for Southwest jaguars

ALBUQUERQUE, NM - Two environmental groups are threatening to sue the federal government over protections for endangered jaguars in the Southwest.

The Animal Welfare Institute and WildEarth Guardians contend in their notice of intent to sue that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services has failed to ensure its activities won't harm the elusive cats or their habitat.

Wildlife Services uses traps and snares as part of the agency's work to target other animals. The groups say that work could affect the jaguar and its prey, which would amount to a violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.

Another concern is the agency's use of pesticides in the area to control a bollworm known to wreak havoc on cotton fields. The groups are seeking an end to all activities that could have a negative effect on the cat's habitat.

"Wildlife Services can no longer blindly pretend that jaguars do not have a place in the American Southwest," Tara Zuardo, an attorney with the Animal Welfare Institute, said in a statement. "Employing indiscriminate, dangerous lethal control methods in occupied jaguar habitat is a severe threat to the species' recovery and must end now."

A USDA spokeswoman said she was not aware of the agency receiving the notice and would be unable to comment on the pending legal action. The notice was made public Monday.

In March, 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.

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 eight years.

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