Ocelots endangered along Rio Grande

(Note: Other species are endangered along the Rio Grande, too: farmers, ranchers and homeowners. Those humans seeking to attract ocelots, note the reference to 'Obsession' perfume. USFWS employees must be buying a lot of the expensive stuff. This: "A lot of people come to the Valley and spend millions of dollars just to observe wildlife," is questionable, to say the least. The author of this story seems to be enthralled with 'envisioning' something that plays along with 'The Wildlands Project.' Farmers and ranchers have legitimate reasons to be concerned with this latest USFWS attempt to placate them.Also, the following clearly illustrates that 'roadless initiatives' will happen SOON: "In a study of ocelot mortality between 1983 and 2003, Laack found that many ocelot deaths were from human interference. 'Being killed by cars was 44 percent of the total mortality, which was a pretty high percentage.'" This article reeks of language deception.)

September 28, 2003

By Kevin Garcia

The Brownsville Herald

Brownsville, Texas


To submit a Letter to the Editor: tgarcia@link.freedom.com

In the dark underbrush along the Rio Grande, a solitary hunter seeks a mate.

It has been years since the small spotted cat has seen another of its own kind, so it now seeks to expand its small territory. But an obstacle has appeared before it -- the highway.

Ocelots once lived in great numbers throughout the Americas. As civilization has encroached upon them, however, their population has dwindled to as few as 100 in South Texas.

Other cats like the jaguar and the margay have disappeared from the state, and researchers are trying to stop the same thing from happening to the endangered ocelot.

"They are considered one of the most beautiful cats in the world," explained Linda Laack, wildlife biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Laguna Atascosa preserve. "They are a rather shy and timid cat." Refuge Manager John Wallace said, adding that "the area will lose something vital when ocelots disappear from Texas."

"A lot of people ask what the value of the ocelot or any wildlife is," Wallace said. "Ocelots give us that little bit of wilderness that you can't find anywhere else. If one person sees an ocelot, that tells them there is that little bit of wilderness here and they didn't have to go to Central America or somewhere else to see it."

It is rare to see an ocelot here in the wild, but Wallace said the prospect of witnessing one draws tourists every year.

"A lot of people come to the Valley and spend millions of dollars just to observe wildlife," he said. "Other people don't care if there are wild animals or not. The neutral people are the people we are trying to reach."

Disappearing act

Ocelots are believed to have lived as far north as Arkansas and as far west as California before the United States annexed areas of the Southwest. Today, ocelots live only in small pockets along the border. While they can still be found in much of their Latin American territory, their numbers are a fraction of what they once where.

Laack said poaching has been a problem in the past, but the largest reason behind the dwindling ocelot population is habitat loss.

Ocelots are only known to have functioning breeding populations in Laguna Atascosa and in some brushland in northern Cameron County. Individual ocelots have been observed in other parts of South Texas, but they are often separated by developed areas.

The largest known population has less than 60 members and is located within the protected Laguna Atascosa preserve.

To keep track of the reclusive creatures, researchers use a variety of baits ranging from live birds to Calvin Klein's Obsession perfume a scent ocelots have been found to prefer.

Once caught, tracking collars are strapped on the cats and biological samples are taken to see how much diversity is present.

"We're keeping a few radio collars on a few individuals so that we can make sure that the population is doing okay," Laack said. "We certainly have a very small population, perhaps even less then 100 individuals throughout South Texas."

Researchers fear that the limited number of ocelots in the region could lead to reduced genetic diversity. Laack added that captive ocelots could not be used to boost the wild ocelot population.

"Ocelots in the zoos are basically what we call generic animals," she said. "They are crossbred so there aren't any pure lines."

The subspecies of ocelot in Texas and northern Mexico is genetically different and physically smaller than ocelots in Brazil.

Mitch Sternberg, a biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, said it is difficult to accurately study ocelots.

"We've only studied them on the coast and in ranches in the north," Sternberg said. "The population that we do know of are in bad need of some new genetics."

In a study of ocelot mortality between 1983 and 2003, Laack found that many ocelot deaths were from human interference.

"Being killed by cars was 44 percent of the total mortality, which was a pretty high percentage," Laack said. "We are working with the highway department in certain locations to try and reduce the road mortality."

Laack urges people to call U.S. Fish and Wildlife when they find ocelots that have died in automobile collisions. She said there are no fines levied for such accidents.

"In one case, someone hit a cat and managed to get it to a veterinarian," Laack said. "We consider that going above and beyond to save the ocelot, and we appreciate that."

Saving the cats

Researchers agreed that the first step to protecting wildlife is understanding where they live and protecting their habitat.

Brush in private lands throughout South Texas could be potential ocelot havens, but Sternberg said many ranchers fear that if endangered species are found on their property, restrictions will be put on construction or that the government will confiscate the land.

"There are myths among ranch owners that if we find ocelots on their ranch we will take their lands," Sternberg said. "That's not true."

State or federal agencies can enter easement agreements with landowners to rent and care for land without changing ownership. This helps create wildlife corridors used by animals to travel from one part of their habitat to another.

"Corridors can be anything, as narrow as a fence line or a big brush along a resaca edge or drainage ditch," Laack said. "In some cases, you can specifically create a corridor for wildlife use, but a lot of times the drainage ditches that are manmade end up being corridors. But they are still used by the cats' they don't know the difference."

Grants [of taxpayer dollars] from Texas Parks and Wildlife have helped researchers purchase tracking equipment in recent years. That grant money comes in large part from the purchase of Texas Horned Toad license plates sponsored by the state agency.

An "Adopt an Ocelot" program helps fund some of the Laguna Atascosa activities.

"The people who adopt an ocelot get a certificate that is suitable for framing and a package detailing the life history of some of the ocelots we have tracked," Laack said. "Donations usually range from $20 to $30."

Wallace added that conservationists [also recently known as self-proclaimed 'environmentalists,' until that term got too hot for them] appreciate whatever help they can get. A fundraising Ocelot Festival is planned for Feb. 14-15.

"Our ultimate goal is to remove them from the endangered species list," Wallace said.