The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated just under 1,200 square miles of Southern Arizona and New Mexico as critical habitat for the endangered jaguar.
Although jaguars historically roamed in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, their numbers dwindled in the U.S. in the 20th century.
Merely one Jaguar has been sighted in recent years in the state – in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson.
Northern Mexico is home to a larger population of the cats.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s newly designated critical habitats are intended to protect jaguars that roam from Mexico to mountain ranges in the Southwest.
The critical habitat designation means federal agencies are prohibited from “adversely modifying” land by granting permits for commercial development that would make the region unsuitable for jaguars.
The proposed Rosemont Copper mine, south of Tucson, is located within the critical habitat, but Fish and Wildlife said the designation won’t affect its green light for the mine. The agency said Rosemont doesn’t “constitute destruction or adverse modification of jaguar critical habitat.”
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said he disagreed with that conclusion, but said the designation is a very important first step for reclaiming the jaguar’s lost habitat.
The service needs to go a step further and establish a population in the U.S., he added.
The critical habitat zones include swathes of 15 Southern Arizona mountain ranges.