Animal rights groups threaten suit over endangered jaguars

Animal rights activists are threatening to sue the Obama administration for endangering jaguars, even though they are a government-protected species.

The Animal Welfare Institute and WildEarth Guardians warned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Monday that they are preparing a lawsuit, because the agency's activities place jaguars at risk.

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"They are, in fact, very endangered," said Tara Zuardo, spokeswoman for the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). "There is only one documented jaguar living in states right now. There are very few left. They're one of the most imperiled animals out there."

This comes as the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service moves forward with further protections for jaguars living in the southwest. Already listed on the agency's endangered species list, last month it announced it is expanding the critical habitat where jaguars live in parts of Arizona and New Mexico.

But the USDA's Wildlife Service, a different government agency, has been placing these same jaguars in danger, the groups allege. 

In an effort to protect farm animals from predators like bears and coyotes, Wildlife Services will often target these animals with traps and other weapons. But by doing so the agency may indirectly harm protected jaguars, or the prey that these jaguars eat such as rodents, WildEarth Guardians spokeswoman Bethany Cotton explained.

The groups accuse the Wildlife Services of employing "lethal wildlife management techniques," including the use of blind sets, traps, leg and foot snares, and M-44 cyanide capsule ejectors.

"Many of these cruel techniques routinely injure and kill non-target species," the groups wrote. "Wildlife Services is conducting other activities that jeopardize jaguar recovery, including pesticide application in the vicinity of known occupied jaguar habitats."

The groups are required to notify the USDA at least 60 days before filing a lawsuit, which is what they did Monday. Cotton said this will gave the agency time to rectify the problems and avoid the lawsuit.

"The presence of rare jaguars in the Southwest is part of what makes it such a unique and special part of our country," John Mellgren, staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, which filed the 60-day notice, said in a statement. "The critical habitat designation will help ensure that the jaguar does not go extinct. As such, it is important that we hold Wildlife Services accountable for actions that could harm jaguars."