The baby ocelot recently photographed by remote trail cameras on the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas is cause for celebration. The kitten is estimated to be 3-5 months old, and brings hope to a tiny population—and when we say tiny, we mean it! This baby brings the total number of these great cats on the south Texas refuge to 12.
Ocelots are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act throughout their range from southern Texas and southern Arizona, through Central and South America into northern Argentina and Uruguay. Like their larger cousin the jaguar, ocelots are not, as often imagined, only found in tropical rain forests. Both the jaguar and ocelot were historically found in larger numbers throughout the southern United States, and are struggling to regain a foothold here.
There are two known populations of ocelots in Texas: the 12 animals at Laguna Atascosa and another 25 or so primarily on private ranchlands in two adjacent counties. These ocelots live in thornscrub habitat, a dense chaparral. The two populations are isolated from each other and from a third and much larger population in Tamaulipas, Mexico. There have been several ocelots of the Sonoran subspecies documented in Arizona, including one caught by a remote trail camera in 2009, one hit on a road in 2010, and two sightings in 2013. Ocelots have also been documented just south of the border in Sonora, as well as at the jaguar reserve about 120 miles south of the border.
The new kitten in Texas has a special place in our hearts because several years ago Defenders helped revegetate habitat needed by ocelots in Texas and worked to stop the Border Patrol from removing vegetation and installing huge lighting arrays, which would have fragmented habitat and potentially disrupted ocelot behavior. These days, we continue to work to protect ocelots and jaguars as they struggle to recolonize their habitat in the U.S. In Arizona, we are working to stop destructive and ill-conceived mining proposals that will hinder the recovery of these spotted cats. These include the proposed Rosemont Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains and numerous drilling proposals in the Patagonia Mountains. Right now, many Arizona mines stand idle, waiting for mineral prices to increase. There is simply no reason to build mines which further threaten endangered species, and which would harm the tourism-based economies of southern Arizona.
Ocelots and jaguars in the U.S. are threatened primarily by habitat destruction and fragmentation, including development, road building, and activity and infrastructure related to the international border. One thing both species need to overcome these threats is a commitment from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to complete and implement science-based recovery planning. The Service is working on a jaguar plan, but the ocelot planning process has been idle for several years. It is impossible for endangered cats to reach their destination – recovery – without a roadmap that points the way there. A good recovery plan assures that everyone involved, including federal and state agencies, land owners, mining companies and the general public, knows what it will take to return these great cats to their rightful place and roles in nature.
Eva Sargent is Defenders of Wildlife’s Director of Southwest Programs