A federal agency labeled more than 764,000 acres in Southeastern Arizona and Southwestern New Mexico on Tuesday as habitat critical to protecting the endangered northern jaguar.
Designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, the area covers mountain ranges throughout Pima, Cochise and Santa Cruz counties as well as ranges in Hidalgo County, N.M.
The area was reduced from an earlier proposal of 838,000 acres because Fort Huachuca and the Tohono O’Odham Nation were excluded from the designation.
The designation is part of a long-standing series of lawsuits between the Center of Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based environmental organization, and the agency.
CBD spokesman Michael Robinson said the group expects Fish and Wildlife to produce a draft recovery plan this spring, but said the agency has been reluctant to create the habitat designation.
Tuesday’s announcement means that federal agencies will have to consider the impact on jaguars before approving uses such as mining. The designation doesn’t apply to private land unless the owners propose a use requiring federal funding or permits.
“It serves as a yellow flag for federal agencies that now have an additional responsibility to protect the habitat,” said Jeff Humphrey, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman.
The habitat could make it more difficult for the proposed Rosemont Mine to win federal approval. While Fish and Wildlife has stated that the mine’s use of 5,000 acres in the Santa Ritas would not be forbidden under habitat protection rules, environmental groups will challenge this funding.