To give ocelots at chance at recovery in the U.S. we need to connect, protect, and expand their habitat.
On April 10th, 2016 an adult male ocelot was run over and killed on Texas Highway 100, next to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron County. Within a few days, on April 22nd, another adult male was killed on Highway 77 in nearby Kenedy County, approximately 50 miles north of the refuge. In all, 7 endangered ocelots were killed by vehicles in three adjacent Texas counties from June 2, 2015 to April 22, 2016. In less than a year, vehicles killed 13 percent of the roughly 55 ocelots known to still be living in Texas – and these are only the victims that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knows about.
Fortunately, last month the state began installation of a dozen wildlife underpasses in and around the refuge. It’s a major step forward, but not a panacea – three of the ocelots killed in 2016 were not in areas where underpasses are being built.
Two Small Groups, Too Far Apart
In Texas, ocelots live primarily in dense thornscrub where they have cover and food. When I first heard about ocelots living in Texas, I imagined miles of thornscrub thronging with ocelots, but that’s not reality. After many decades of clearing South Texas for crops and cattle (under the theory that any thornscrub is wasteland) there is only a tiny bit remaining – perhaps 2 percent of the original cover. The remaining ocelots are hunkered down in thornscrub remnants surrounded by miles of roads and cleared land.
Scientists believe that the Laguna Atascosa refuge already has as many ocelots as it can hold, so most juvenile ocelots must leave the refuge to find someplace else to live – but there isn’t any place nearby. They end up hiding out at the edges of fields in tiny, leftover patches of scrub until they are crushed by cars or otherwise killed before they can reproduce.
There is a second small group of Texas ocelots some 30 miles north of the refuge on private ranch land in Willacy and Kenedy Counties, where the Highway 77 victim was killed. The best known of these ranches is owned by the Yturria Family, which has worked with wildlife organizations to protect and restore native thornscrub.
What is the future for the surrounded Texas ocelots? Population modelling done for the Service’s just-released Ocelot Recovery Plan shows that Atascosa ocelots will almost certainly disappear unless big changes are made. The refuge group is just too small and isolated from other ocelots to survive alone. Likewise, the group on private land in Kenedy and Willacy Counties is probably too small for long-term survival unless its population can grow. The Service could artificially sustain these populations by capturing ocelots in Tamaulipas, Mexico and releasing them in Texas. But what the Texas ocelots really need to make it on their own is more elbow room.
Wanted: More Secure Habitat!
Many organizations, including the Service, The Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge have been working for years to protect and restore thornscrub habitat. Recently, the Service awarded funds to Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge for replanting and improving thornscrub on the refuge. More coastal conservation work that could benefit ocelots will be paid for from the substantial settlement by BP to compensate for damages caused by the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil spill. But much more habitat is needed.
What we really need to do is connect the two remnant Texas groups with each other, and with a larger population (possibly several hundred ocelots) that lives 130 miles south of the border in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Unfortunately for ocelots, at the moment the area immediately south of the border is covered with fields of sorghum, corn, sugarcane and cotton, so it’s not clear how the Mexican population could be connected with their future friends in Texas.
Given these challenges, the last thing Texas ocelots need are huge new industrial complexes that would split existing habitat and destroy any chance of ever connecting with Mexico. Yet that is exactly what is planned. Applications are pending for three huge liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals to bring inland natural gas to the coast and load it onto tankers. Each terminal would take up many hundreds of acres, largely cutting off the Laguna Atascosa ocelot habitat from the state’s Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area to the south, and blocking future connections with Mexico. One of the three terminals is proposed for a site that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had previously leased for 40 years as the Loma de Potrero Cercado and Loma del Divisadero Wildlife Preserves. When the lease ended, the Port of Brownsville signed a lease option with the LNG company. The preserves will likely be replaced with concrete and steel.
There is some good news. Both the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have expressed concern over potential harmful effects these terminals could have on endangered and threatened species. Defenders’ attorneys are engaging in the permitting process for these projects and will do everything we can to prevent them from hindering ocelot recovery.