A photograph of an endangered jaguar in close proximity to the Rosemont copper mine and within proposed critical habitat for the rare cat greatly increases the chance the massive mine project would have an adverse impact on the high-profile animal.
The Arizona Daily Star reported Sunday that the photograph of a jaguar’s tail taken last September was in the northern half of the Santa Rita Mountains, where Vancouver, B.C.-based Augusta Resource Corporation is seeking permits to build the Rosemont copper mine.
Augusta Resource’s subsidiary, Rosemont Copper Company, is seeking to dig a mile-wide, half-mile deep mine and dump waste rock and mine tailings 70-stories high across more than 3,000 acres of the Coronado National Forest.
The jaguar’s presence so close to a proposed mine boosts the threat for illegal “take,” Patrick Parenteau, a Vermont law professor who was involved with endangered species litigation as a federal official and a National Wildlife Federation attorney, told the Daily Star.
“The more you can show that mining activity could harm or harass an individual animal, the more potential there is for take,” Parenteau said. “It does matter how close the animal is.”
Endangered Species Act Section 9 prohibits the unauthorized “take” of listed species. It broadly defines “take” to include “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect.”
Illegal take can give rise to criminal enforcement, civil administrative penalties and civil judicial action for injunctive relief. This prohibition applies to all persons and entities.
The increased possibility of an illegal take of a jaguar caused by development and operation of the Rosemont mine is likely to draw legal fire from conservationists and mine opponents.
The jaguar sighting near the mine also heightens the importance of the ongoing discussions between the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Coronado National Forest required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The jaguar is one of 10 species protected by the ESA that would be impacted by the proposed mine.
The USFWS must deliver a biological opinion to the Forest Service on the mine’s impact on all the species by December 20. Any perceived shortcomings in the biological opinion will likely result in legal challenges.
The lengthy legal battle that finally lead to the USFWS proposing 838,000 acres of critical habitat in southern Arizona and New Mexico for the jaguar last summer is a precursor to the potential legal issues regarding the mine’s impact on the jaguar.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service refused to designate critical habitat for the jaguar after it was listed as an endangered species in 1997.
After years of litigation challenging the agency’s decision, the U.S. District Court for Arizona ordered USFWS to issue a new decision on whether to designate critical habitat.
The Court required that the Service “shall focus on the principal biological constituent elements within the defined area that are essential to the conservation of the species.”
The agency issued a decision to designate critical habitat in early 2010 and released its proposed critical habitat last August.
The confirmation of a jaguar near the mine site appears to be a significant development in the preparation of the USFWS biological opinion.
“Rather than connecting very old dots on a map, we now have something that is new and precise,” USFWS spokesmen Jeff Humphrey told the Daily Star.
The Forest Service will use the USFWS biological opinion in making its decision on whether to issue a final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision that are prerequisites to issuing a permit to allow the Rosemont mine to go forward, or require additional studies before making a decision.
The Forest Service issued a report last June that the mine would “likely adversely affect” the jaguar — before the latest jaguar sighting close to the project.
Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch told the Daily Star the jaguar photo was taken “adjacent to” and likely “pretty darned close” to the Rosemont project. The exact location of where the photograph was taken is not being released by the Arizona Game & Fish Department (AGFD) to protect the animal from illegal hunting.
Coronado National Forest biologist Larry Jones stated in an Oct. 10 email to the AGFD that the jaguar photo was taken within a 145,000-acre “Rosemont Action Area” where the Forest Service is studying the mine’s potential impacts on biological resources – but outside the formal mine project area boundaries. That area spans about 6,990 acres and includes the mine site and related facilities.
“This is crucial info, because this would provide unequivocal proof that Jaguars have been detected within the action area,” Jones’ email states. (Note: Jones’ email is part of a series of communications the AGFD has released in response to a public records request from the Daily Star – those emails can be downloaded here – large file).
The USFWS proposed jaguar critical habitat which includes the massive copper project has already triggered dueling scientific reports, with mine proponents claiming the project poses no significant threat to the jaguar while conservationists argue the mine will adversely affect the jaguar’s recovery in the United States.
Rosemont Copper Company’s consultant WestLand Resources, Inc., concluded in a Nov. 9 report to the Coronado National Forest that while the mine could negatively impact individual jaguars, it would have no impact on the survival of the species.
“In short, these analyses demonstrate that while there could be impacts to jaguars and proposed jaguar critical habitat as a result of the Rosemont Copper Project, these effects are not likely to either influence the continued existence of the species or appreciably diminish the value of critical habitat for the survival or recovery of the species,” the WestLand report stated.
The Society of Conservation Biology (SCB), however, in an Oct. 19 letter to USFWS, urged expansion of the agency’s proposed critical habitat and pointed to the importance of male jaguars in Arizona to the survival of the species.
The closest known breeding population of jaguars to the Rosemont project is about 100 miles south in central Sonora, Mexico. The SCB letter also noted the impact of global warming on jaguar habitat in the U.S.
“Peripheral populations can be an important genetic resource in that they may be beneficial to the protection of evolutionary processes that are likely to generate future evolutionary diversity,” the letter stated. “In addition, recovering jaguars at the northern end of the species’ range may prove important as climate change causes biological communities to shift farther north.”