*This story has been updated to include comments from the Cattle Growers’ Association

NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Always elusive, jaguars are hard to spot, although they do show up occasionally in Arizona and New Mexico. But advocates say the federal government is not doing enough to help the animals thrive in the American Southwest. Their proposed solution: Bring jaguars to the Gila National Forest.

“Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition to the secretary of the interior Deb Haaland and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today requesting the beginning of the process to reintroduce jaguars to the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico,” says Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.

In a petition sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity is asking for the Fish and Wildlife Service to bring an “experimental population” of jaguars to the Gila. They say the Gila and nearby Mogollon Plateau offer the best remaining land for jaguars in the Southwest.

The Gila has a history of environmental protection. It was home to the first wilderness area anywhere in the U.S., established in 1924. Now, the Center for Biological Diversity points out that there are tens of thousands of elk in the Gila, along with deer, javelina, and sheep, all living in an area with few roads and human interference.

And, if the proposal goes through, a new group of jaguars could join the party. But exactly how many is still up in the air.

“We’re not at that stage yet,” Robinson says. But the goal is to get enough jaguars to then mix with jaguars currently living just south of the border. Then, Robinson says, the now-dwindling population in northern Mexico would be bolstered and the Gila population would have breeding partners.

As for where these reintroduced jaguars might come from, Robinson says there are several potential options, including using a breeding program similar to what’s being done in Argentina. “They’re currently reintroducing jaguars to an area of their historic region there that they were eliminated from,” Robinson says. “They have male and female jaguars in a large enclosure, allowing them to breed and they don’t have any human contact.”

But speculating too much on the details is perhaps premature. It would likely be years before the proposal actually brings jaguars to New Mexico, according to Robinson. First, the petition will be assessed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This isn’t the first time the idea of reintroducing jaguars to the Southwest has been discussed. Last year, researchers and advocates made a case for reintroduction. But not everyone thought it was the best option.

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The petition asks the U.S. government to list millions of acres as “critical habitat.” Image from Center for Biological Diversity.

Besides reintroduction, the latest petition also asks the federal government to designate more habitat for jaguars. “To recover the jaguar, the Fish and Wildlife Service must designate critical habitat in areas sufficiently large to support a population of jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico,” the petition says.

In particular, the petition asks the federal government to add additional land in southern Arizona for a total of over 14 million acres of land listed as essential to the survival of jaguars. Currently, about 764,000 acres are listed as critical habitat in Arizona and New Mexico, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“They [jaguars] were here for millions of years, and they were eliminated. They were an important part of their ecosystem, and the Fish and Wildlife Service should have been doing a lot more to try and save jaguars and recover them. And now we’re pointing the way to how they can be recovered through re-introduction and habitat protection,” Robinson says.

News 13 reached out to U.S. Fish and Wildlife for comment and are waiting to hear back. But Fish and Wildlife has previously told KRQE News 13 that they don’t comment on proposals.

The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association tells News 13 they oppose the idea. They say the proposal would be adding “burdensome regulations” and would hamper rural communities economic opportunity for the sake of a species that’s already protected.