Jaguars may finally get the protection they deserve in the American Southwest now that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has agreed to create a recovery plan for the imperiled felines. Defenders of Wildlife won a lawsuit last March that required FWS to revisit its decision to forego a recovery plan.

The largest native North American cat, jaguars once ranged from Arizona, New Mexico and Texas all the way to Argentina. But driven out by hunting and habitat loss, they have rarely been sighted in the United States since the 1900s.

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Did you know? The jaguar is the third-largest living feline species, after the tiger and lion. Learn more fun facts—and hear a jaguar roar—on our jaguar fact sheet.

“A timely, scientific recovery plan is the essential first step on the long trek to a comeback for these great cats,” says Eva Sargent, Defenders of Wildlife’s Southwest program director. “It’s a welcome change to see that under President Obama, science appears to be guiding FWS’s jaguar decision. It’s here, in the American Southwest, where jaguars have suffered some of their most significant range losses. And it’s certainly good news to see FWS fulfill its duty under the Endangered Species Act to help jaguars.”

Researchers say that jaguar habitat in the northern portion of the cat’s range is becoming increasingly important as more forest land in Central and South America is destroyed to make way for agriculture and housing.

“There is no reason why jaguars cannot have a population in the United States,” says Sargent. “They did for thousands of years and there’s plenty of room left for them to roam. This is a huge victory for the jaguar.”

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Find out about Defenders’ work to create a jaguar preserve.

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