The U.S.’ Only Jaguar Could Lose Its Home to a Copper Mine

The federal government moves closer to approving a project that would destroy the predator’s habitat.
El Jefe caught by a camera trap in 2015. (Photo: Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity)
May 4, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Can a mile-wide, 3,000-foot-deep open-pit copper mine blasted into the Arizona desert coexist with the sole jaguar roaming the United States?

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service thinks so. The agency on Tuesday released its final “biological opinion” on the impact of the controversial proposed Rosemont mine, concluding the project would not significantly harm the jaguar and other threatened and endangered wildlife, despite destroying part of their habitat. The Canadian company Hudbay Minerals wants to build the mine on thousands of acres next to the Coronado National Forest, about 25 miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona.

FWS found that several mitigating measures are sufficient to prevent harm to native wildlife, including permanent protection of 4,827 acres of conservation lands, a $3 million fund for nonnative aquatic species removal, $1.3 million for habitat enhancement for two endangered bird species, and a $2 million water-rights purchase for stream restoration.

“Due to Rosemont’s commitment to off-set effects to species and habitats, the [biological opinion] concluded that the Rosemont project will not jeopardize the continued existence of any of the 13 affected listed species; it will not adversely modify proposed or final critical habitat to the extent that it precludes recovery of the species,” FWS spokesman Jeff Humphrey said in an email.

Randy Serraglio, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, blasted the opinion.

“This is an outrageous decision that isn’t supported by the agency’s own scientist,” he said.

The area is home to the only known jaguar in the U.S. Known as El Jefe, the wild animal roams between Mexico and Arizona. Last year, a male ocelot was captured on camera in the area. Both species are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the mine project would also “likely adversely affect” several other endangered and threatened species, including fish, frogs, and birds that live in and along local streams, such as Cienega Creek, which is fed by groundwater that would be used by the mine.

Some of that water would be returned to streams, according to FWS, which acknowledged that the mine’s lowering of the water table could dry up part of a key tributary of Cienega Creek. But in its biological opinion, the agency said that would not be enough to cause a major drying of the creek.

Wrangling over the proposed mine has been going on for more than eight years, with several government agencies weighing in.

In 2008, the Arizona Game and Fish Department found that the project “will render the northern portion of the Santa Rita Mountains virtually worthless as wildlife habitat and as a functioning ecosystem.”

The EPA determined in 2013 that proposed mitigation measures at the time were “grossly inadequate” to avoid “significant degradation of the aquatic ecosystem.” The project would permanently fill about 18 miles of streams across some 5,000 acres of land, the agency said, adding that measures to return water to streams would fail to provide “functionally meaningful improvement in riparian habitat.”

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The EPA also said that the company’s methods for assessing the surrounding ecosystem and potential mitigation of the mine’s impact were “scientifically flawed.”

Also in 2013, FWS issued a biological opinion stating that the mine would not significantly harm threatened and endangered species. The agency revised that finding the following year, citing the detection of the ocelot in the area, “new information” showing that the water table would be affected more than previously predicted, and the imminent listing of two native species, the Mexican garter snake and the yellow-billed cuckoo, which have since been designated as threatened.

The biological opinion issued Tuesday, however, overrode those concerns.

The project still needs permission from the National Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers. In 2014, the corps found that mitigation measures at the time “would not fully compensate for the unavoidable adverse impact” of the mine.

Corps officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Babete Anderson, a spokeswoman for the USDA Forest Service, wrote in an email that the service is leaning toward granting a permit for the mine.

Anderson said the biological opinion issued Tuesday “will inform the Forest Service in finalizing the [decision]. Recommendations will be evaluated and additional conservation measures and/or terms and conditions may be incorporated.” She could not say when that would happen.

“This is going to take years, because these permit decisions are going to trigger litigation no matter what,” Serraglio said. “The company will sue if it doesn’t get what it wants, and if these agencies are foolish enough to permit the project, we will sue.”