To work directly with US Fish and Wildlife Service to reduce road mortality and to educate people on the value of this beautiful species in the wild. To create important partnerships which will allow and facilitate the expansion of their range.
With the advance of human civilization, many species of plants and animals declined in numbers and territory. Some became extinct, while a few expanded in range and population. Species with which people compete— like cats—usually did worse.
Cats reach their greatest diversity in southern Texas; the United States has seven species, and south Texas has (or had) six of these. One of these, the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) is still holding on, although its range and numbers have declined drastically. Ocelots are under threat throughout their range, although several countries in Latin America still have healthy populations.
Based on early records, which no doubt are incomplete, the ocelot was once found over large parts of Texas. Specimens exist from Brewster to Jefferson County, with outlying records from McLennan and Fall Counties and even from Donley County in the Panhandle of the state. The type specimen is actually from Arkansas, and it may also have occurred in recent times in western Louisiana. The fossil record indicates a much wider range. Alto¬gether there are at least eleven subspecies within the range of this animal, which occurs as far south as Argentina. The south Texas subspecies is albescens, and another subspecies, sonoriensis, occurs very rarely from Arizona through western Sonora. The most recent report from Arizona was of an ocelot photographed through the use of a camera trap in November 2009. The last confirmed report before that was from an ocelot shot in 1964.
In southernmost Texas, most ocelot records come from Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (LANWR) and from private lands in three counties: Cameron, Hidalgo, and Willacy. This, then, is the core area for the survival of the species in the United States. This piece of land—smaller than the state of Connecticut and less than 1.4 percent of Texas—is the battleground, and it represents our best opportunity to save ocelots north of Mexico.
While ocelots are still found in south Texas, they are threatened by everything imaginable—urbanization, death by vehicles, poaching, isolation of populations resulting in inbreeding, illegal pet trade, disease (which can be made worse by genetic isolation), predation, border issues (in particular the border wall), impacts from pesticides and herbicides, and climate change. And if that wasn’t enough, we have a weakened economy, which generally means fewer resources for wildlife protection.
Ocelots are about the same size as a bobcat (Lynx rufus). They are spotted like bobcats, but with larger spots, and they have a much longer tail. Since they are widespread, ocelots have been able to adapt to a wide variety of habitats. So far, however, they haven’t been able to adapt to large-scale, human-induced landscape changes and the impact of automobiles. In most areas they are found where protecting cover is dense, though they will hunt in more open areas at night. Throughout their range they are found in tropical and thorn forest, mangrove swamps, savanna, and shrubby areas. In Texas they were historically found in thickets of chaparral and the more open coastal areas in the forests and swamps of the southern Big Thicket area. The Brewster and Donley County records are in much more open areas.
by Richard Moore
Richard Moore hosts "The Nature Report" every Monday and Wednesday.
If you want to see a rare ocelot, then deep South Texas is the place to be, but biologists estimate less than 50 of the endangered cats remain in southernmost Texas.
Mitch Sternberg is the lead ocelot biologist for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and he is in charge of keeping tabs on the elusive cats whose population appears stable.
"The only place in the United States of America where we have an ocelot population is actually in Texas. There are ocelots in Arizona, but there has never been a female documented in Arizona," he said.
While an occasional male ocelot wanders into Arizona from Mexico, South Texas has a breeding population on the East Foundation property north of Port Mansfield, the Yturria Ranch north of Raymondville and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge east of Rio Hondo.
"Currently we know of 41 ocelots in South Texas."
Researches are just beginning their studies for the year, and they will live trap and radio collar ocelots to monitor their movements.
Sternberg said, "The number one mortality factor for ocelots is actually vehicles, so wildlife crossings are critically important."
By documenting the ocelot's travel patterns, biologists will be able to pinpoint where critical wildlife crossing need to be built under roads.
"The one wildlife crossing that is installed in South Texas that could work for ocelots isn't immediately near the ocelot population, but there is all kinds of things using it. We have multiple bobcats crossing in there," said Sternberg.
And the plan is to build more of these vital crossings beneath local roads in areas where ocelots travel.
Sternberg said, "We are working with Texas Department of Transportation right now on several highway projects to get wildlife crossings installed as part of the highway project, in particular on 106 that leads to Laguna…That will improve it for wildlife and also increase the safety factor of that road for all the drivers."
Steve's Sightings: Ocelots help make the Valley special Story
If there is one animal that defines Rio Grande Valley wildlife, it's probably one that is seldom seen – the ocelot.
These extremely rare nocturnal felines are on federal and state endangered lists and for good reason. The official census is that there are less than 50 remaining in the United States, all living in South Texas. The largest concentration is at and adjacent to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron County.
If you go there, however, don't get your hopes high about seeing one. You probably have a better chance of winning the lottery than seeing one of these beautiful spotted cats which are about the size of bobcats.
I've seen three ocelots in the wild in my 16 years in the Valley.
I saw my first nine months after moving here. It was about 3:30 p.m. on a Friday October on a trail at Laguna Atascosa. In the distance I could see a major storm rolling in from the northwest and knew it would be here in a half hour or so.
Strangely enough, I was actually looking for an ocelot. I was so naive that I thought if I stood on the trail long enough, one would just come walking by. How absurd. Things like that just don't happen.
But, that's exactly what happened. I was concentrating on the north part of the trail, but every so often I would turn around to see if there was anything in back of me. As I turned around, sure enough there was an ocelot 20 feet away staring at me. As we made eye contact, the ocelot quickly slipped into brush on the eastern side of the trail.
My second sighting came about seven years ago while in my car on Bayside Drive at the refuge. I saw a cat try to cross the road, which didn't surprise me since a week before I had seen a bobcat at practically the same place. But this cat was different. For one thing, it was very nervous, not certain if it wanted to make a dash across the road or turn around. Bobcats are a little more self assured.
It was about this time I noticed that this was no bobcat. It had a long tail hanging to the ground and much shorter legs. Finally, the ocelot did cross the road and disappeared into the thick brush.
The most recent sighting was a few years ago at the refuge visitors center. We knew a juvenile ocelot had been spotted drinking at the visitors center water features and knew there was a chance we might see it. I was inside the center at the time when friend Seth Patterson burst through the door and said "Steve, the ocelot's here!" Along with other photographers, I snapped off several pictures of the ocelot drinking.
Unfortunately, the young cat was very sick and was found dead the following day.
Laguna Atascosa NWR was created following World War II to help preserve the wintering redhead duck population. Little did anyone know that it was home to an ocelot population. Today, refuge employees and volunteers, as well as other groups, are committed to ensuring ocelots will be a permanent fixture in South Texas.
Ocelots face formidable obstacles, but not having them around is unacceptable.