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Lewis Carroll had Humpty Dumpty famously declare, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

According to a lawsuit, that seems to have been the federal government’s attitude when it determined that parts of New Mexico that had been determined to be “marginal,” “secondary” and even “peripheral” habitats for jaguars suddenly became “critical.”

A lower court ruling has been appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents New Mexico ranchers whose lands have been impacted by the Department of the Interior decision to protect jaguars.

PLF attorney Christina Martin pointed out, however, that according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, jaguars thrive in and prefer tropical forests.

“Tropical forests provide ‘primary’ habitat, while the arid regions of Mexico, and small portions of New Mexico and Arizona provide only ‘marginal,’ ‘secondary,’ and ‘peripheral’ habitat,” she wrote.

“Leave it to a bureaucrat to decide that ‘marginal’ and ‘secondary’ habitat can simultaneously be ‘critical’ and ‘indispensable’ habitat. It’s not only an abuse of the language – it’s also an abuse of authority,” she said.

Martin pointed out that the federal government anticipates that at best, the United States will be home to only a few jaguars, and none of them will breed.

“In contrast, experts currently estimate that around 64,000 jaguars roam the tropical forests of Central and South America. In other words, the key to conserving jaguars lies hundreds of miles south of the U.S. border.”

Nonetheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set aside lands in New Mexico and Arizona for jaguars, which haven’t been seen in the United States for decades at a time.

PLF is representing the New New Mexico Farm & Livestock Bureau, New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association and New Mexico Federal Lands Council.

“If the designation stands, these groups’ members will face expensive and time-consuming red tape when seeking to renew grazing permits or when making improvements on land within the area designated critical habitat,” Martin wrote.

A federal judge ruled against the ranchers, even though the trial court recognized “there were no jaguars living in the United States when the species was listed as ‘endangered’ in 1972.”

At the 10th Circuit, PLF is arguing that the Supreme Court already has ruled that “critical habitat must be actual habitat and it must be ‘indispensable’ to the conservation of a species.”

The fight is over thousands of acres of land in Hidalgo County, New Mexico.

“Rational decision-making requires the agency to provide some standard for determining ‘essential’ habitat,” the complaint says.

“How can the service decide what is ‘essential to conservation’ if the service has not made even a basic determination of what conservation would look like?

“It’s like starting to build a house without deciding the size or shape of the house. One can’t very well start building the walls before knowing how many rooms the house will have. Yet that is analogous to what the service did here.”

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