El Jefe first appeared in the U.S. in 2011, and now it appears he confines himself to the Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona not far from the U.S.-Mexico border. But if El Jefe knew what the future of his habitat could hold, he might choose to saunter out of Arizona for good. A mile-wide copper mine, to be carved near the Coronado National Forest where the cat now prowls, has received the blessing of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Known as the Rosemont Copper Mine, the proposed project will involve some 3,670 acres of Forest Service land, including a pit mine, waste disposal and processing plant.
Should the mine move forward, it would be one of the largest in the country. It would be physically huge — a mile wide and with a maximum depth of 2,900 feet — but also incredibly productive. Each year for at least two decades of operation, the pit mine will produce an estimated 221 million pounds of copper. Jeff Cornoyer, the lead geologist on the Rosemont project, told the Sierra Vista Herald in 2013 he expects the mine to bring an annual economic boon of $700 million, surpassing the projected revenue the N.F.L. generated from this year’s Super Bowl.
Since the mine’s proposal in 2007, it has sparked outcry from conservation groups as well as environmental vandals, who in a 2009 incident slashed the tires of a car belonging to a woman who works for the mine.
Though the final decision rests with the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service cleared any obstacles based on endangered species in a recently-released opinion. Concerning jaguars in Arizona — El Jefe, in other words — the possibility of “take,” the FWS wrote, is real. To take an endangered animal, if you’re unfamiliar with the agency’s jargon, means to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect” it. (Jaguars do not take to capture kindly; in 2009, the last known U.S. jaguar prior to El Jefe’s arrival had to be euthanized after the Arizona Fish and Wildlife Service caught it in a snare.)
As the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in its opinion: “We conclude that this level of anticipated take is not likely to result in jeopardy to the jaguar, for the effects are not expected to appreciably reduce the survival and recovery of the species. Jaguars range from southern United States all the way to Argentina and thus, take of one jaguar in the form of harassment in the U.S. will not jeopardize the species.” The fate of El Jefe, in the view of the Fish and Wildlife Service, will not alter the fate of his species.
Animal advocates pounced on the FWS’s decision. “The agency charged with protecting America’s most vulnerable wildlife thinks it’s just fine for a foreign mining company to harm our only known jaguar,” said Randy Serraglio, a conservationist for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “This outrageous decision, which was contradicted by the agency’s own scientists, will not withstand judicial scrutiny.”
The Center for Biological Diversity has sued the Fish and Wildlife service in the past, and environmental attorneys are predicting the Rosemont opinion will be challenged under the Endangered Species Act. Meanwhile, nearly 20,000 people have signed an online petition in defense of El Jefe.
Jaguar country historically included California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona — and, possibly, Louisiana. But by 1963, the last known female to visit the U.S. was shot by a hunter. For decades, biologists believed that the cats had been extirpated from their former U.S. homes — until the jaguars surfaced in the late 1990s. It’s unclear why jaguars have once again appeared in the U.S.; the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the cats as “near threatened,” with a population on the decline thanks to deforestation in addition to human competition for deer, peccary and other prey.
And though El Jefe might be the only jaguar around, he’s not completely without four-legged company. A dog named Mayke, a Belgian Malinois rejected from a K-9 program, is being trained to follow El Jefe’s scat. Sniffing out El Jefe’s scents, Mayke’s handler and biologist Chris Bugbee told Tuscon’s KVOA station, will shed light on the way the big cat uses the Arizona mountains. “The habitat is still here,” he said. “We’d like to see the jaguars recover.”