Jaguars, Nature Reserves, Capitalism

The jaguar is the only cat native to North America that can roar.

An apex predator, its natural range was once documented as far north as Monterrey in California.  It is a magnificent animal.

Jaguars are still native to the lower 48 states, in New Mexico and Arizona, and special reservations of land have been set aside on both sides of the US/Mexican border to preserve their habitat since 2014.

The thing about preserving habitat for apex predators though, is it takes vast swathes of land set aside for their prey animals to graze in undisturbed.  And you have to provide space for enough prey animals to thrive to sustain genetic diversity in the predator population… it gets to be a lot of land very quickly.  Reserved and set aside for nothing more than visiting… maybe camping… but no particularly intensive or productive uses for people.  The land is left fallow, so the native plants can grow, to feed the deer and rabbits, which feed the jaguars.

And, if we’re going to live in a world with magnificent apex predators in the wild—gray wolves, grizzly bears, polar bears, wolverines, pumas and jaguars on land in North America—this is a necessary concession.  We have to let land lie fallow and be unproductive.  No grazing, no mining, no planting, no damming, no logging, no housing, no highways, no rail lines.  Just let nature be.

But… our way of life… the extraordinary wealth we have accumulated (no society has ever been as wealthy in history as North America is today) depends on the privately owned land system, and encouraging resource development and extraction by the private land owners.

Now, the good news for the jaguars is that the fallow land in south Arizona and New Mexico they call home is (1) largely controlled and owned by the American federal government, and (2) not particularly useful as a prospect for development.  It’s a big desert.  No one’s clamoring to plant corn or log trees or control flooding there.

But in Wyoming and Montana where there’s a movement to reintroduce the gray wolf to their former range in the rockies… the interests of the wolf is bumping right up against the interests of the cattle ranchers.  And is it fair to the cattle ranchers to tell them they’ll have to sacrifice their expensive walking hamburgers to the non-taxpaying neighbours because… aren’t wolves magnificent?

The wolves in the area were hunted to extinction by an earlier generation of ranchers for a very good reason.  And the same is true of why we no longer have jaguars in California: left to their own natures, they killed humans and destroyed wealth.

All that said, there are two ways I can see in which mature capitalism contributes to the possibility of land reserves for our rival apex predators.

First: total free trade means that only the most productive land is used, and there’s no local pressure or artificial incentives to extract resources from only marginally productive land.  Mountain meadows in Austria, Switzerland and Germany are an easy example of this. With the EU allowing the free circulation of goods, the cost of farming those high-altitude fields was no longer profitable… so they’ve been abandoned.  The same is probably happening in Mexico and Canada as free trade ensures that it is the highly productive soils of the USA that are used for agriculture to the benefit of everyone.  Less use of marginal land for productive purposes, returns the marginal land to fallow use, for the benefit of wildlife.

Second: maybe our wealth helps us reach “enough.”  We are well-fend and comfortable enough to think more generously about the welfare of rival species on this planet. We don’t need that last nickel of extracted value, if instead we could have more pristine wilderness in Arizona, and to let the jaguars have their space?  Much like lawns are an ostentatious display of not making productive use of soil… maybe we can do more of just not trying to make wealth?

So: how do you view the need to reserve land for wildlife? Is it an overreach of government power, and harmful to our collective wealth? Or a luxury we should consider investing more in… because jaguars are magnificent?

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