ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Federal wildlife officials Tuesday set aside nearly 1,200 square miles along the U.S.-Mexico border as habitat essential for the conservation of the jaguar, a species that hasn't been spotted in New Mexico in eight years and one that has made only fleeting appearances on wildlife cameras in Arizona's Santa Rita Mountains.
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.
"Critical habitat in the United States contributes to the jaguar's persistence and recovery across the species' entire range by providing areas to support individuals that disperse into the United States from the nearest core population in Mexico," the agency said in a statement.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department and other critics wanted the habitat proposal withdrawn when it was first introduced in 2012. They argued the Southwest isn't essential to the jaguar's survival because nearly all of the cat's historic range is in Central and South America.
"The proposal's assertion that habitat in Arizona and New Mexico is essential to jaguar recovery ignores basic biological principles of conservation," the Arizona agency said in a five-page letter to federal officials.
"To be effective, jaguar conservation must occur in areas of their range where consistent breeding occurs," the agency stated.
The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that no female jaguars or breeding have been documented in the U.S. in more than 50 years. Jaguars were placed on the federal endangered species list in 1997.
Environmentalists praised Tuesday decision, saying partial measures over the years have not gone far enough to protect those jaguars that are returning to the U.S.
"This was a widespread animal and the fact that it has been reduced to very rare sightings in the U.S. today is a testament to how much ground it has lost and has to recover, including in Mexico, where it's still losing ground," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Biologists rely on an extensive network of remote cameras across southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico for gauging how often the big cats roam between Mexico and the U.S.
The images captured so far reveal a lone male has been hanging out in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson.
Always under the cover of darkness, the cat — with its massive jaw, spotted coat and long black-tipped tail — can been seen walking through tall grass or darting across the camera's field of view, leaving behind only a blur.
Marit Alanen, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Tucson, acknowledged that many people don't realize the exotic cats are returning.
"When you think about typical jaguar habitat being in the jungle and being tropical, it is pretty exciting that we actually have them in Arizona right now," she said.
The habitat designation includes parts of Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties in Arizona and Hidalgo County in New Mexico. Federal officials say they considered the availability of native prey, water sources, vegetation, topography and other factors in determining the boundaries.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also said the designation will not affect border security, including routine patrols by law enforcement.