Federal recovery plan meant to help rare ocelots in Texas

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Valley Morning Star

LOS FRESNOS, Texas (AP) — Stalking the thorn scrub in the night, searching for rats, rabbits and lizards, the ocelot — for all its surreptitious nocturnal ways — has nevertheless become an iconic animal in Texas and the world.

And now, more than 25 years after it was initiated, ocelot subspecies in Texas and Arizona finally have their own official federal recovery plan.

The Valley Morning Star (http://bit.ly/2ctzUnh ) reports the Ocelot Recovery Plan may be the most in depth federal document ever compiled for an animal species, featuring the work of dozens of scientists and eventually spreading to 237 dense-packed pages on habitat, genetics, population numbers and more.

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The fate of that wildcat hunting under the moon very well may depend on what is in those pages.

“It’s incredibly exciting for us,” said Hilary Swarts, a federal biologist at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge who studies ocelots.

“Not only is it the termination of essentially a 25-year-long process, during which tons of information was learned about Texas ocelots as well as Arizona ocelots, the synthesis is amazing,” Swarts added. “This is the most comprehensive plan I’ve seen.”

The plan’s assessments of the risks ocelots face are no surprise to anyone who has followed developments surrounding the cats over the years.

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Encroachment of human development, habitat loss, highway mortality and concerns about genetic viability are all there.

But maybe for the first time, a recovery plan for an American subspecies has managed to cross a number of borders to document what is known about ocelots throughout each of the states of Mexico, and country-by-country all the way to Argentina, where the ocelot’s range in the Americas terminates.

Initially, when the plan was first being formed, it wasn’t even exclusively about ocelots. Instead, it was to look at several wildcat species — ocelot, jaguar, jaguarundi — found in Mexico and the United States. By the time it morphed into something exclusively about the ocelot subspecies in Texas, around 2010, the study’s authors then were tasked to include the Arizona ocelot subspecies, too. A map of the ocelot’s range in Mexico and the United States shows two fingers spreading up the Gulf of Mexico into South Texas in the east, and the coast along the Gulf of California up into Arizona to the west.

Looking smack at the middle of the map, it becomes apparent ocelots have little taste for desert living. The Chihuahuan Desert, which dominates north-central Mexico and also spreads into West Texas and New Mexico, has no resident ocelot population.

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Yet it isn’t just geographical space with which the recovery plan is concerned.

It is also about time.

The plan covers 100 years, which is a common frame of reference used by biologists, and it includes a mathematical model of risk analysis for different ocelot populations in the United States and Mexico.

“So if you see all of the population, the chance of extinction in 100 years is not so bad, right?” Swarts said. “Tamaulipas? Not so bad. Willacy? We’re starting with a pretty low number, not very promising. Laguna? We’re starting with a pretty low number, not very promising.

“You can see in the best-case scenario, we’ve got 70 years,” Swarts said. “And in the worst-case scenario, we’ve got 15 years.”

But “not promising” does not necessarily translate as inevitable.

The most immediate threat to ocelots in Cameron, Willacy and Kenedy counties is highway mortality.

Four ocelots are known to have died under the wheels of vehicles this year, all of them young males. Since June 2015, seven ocelots — six males and a female — have been killed by cars.

hree of the ocelot deaths during the past year occurred on FM 186 in Willacy County; one occurred on Highway 100 in Cameron County; one occurred on FM 2925 just west of Arroyo City; one on I-69 East just inside Kenedy County; and the other ocelot fatality occurred on Buena Vista Road in Cameron County.

To counter these types of ocelot deaths, the Texas Department of Transportation is building a series of eight wildlife underpasses for FM 106 and Buena Vista Road.

Swarts says highway mortality for ocelots essentially is caused by another threat to the cats, which is lack of suitable habitat. Ocelots, unlike their more numerous bobcat cousins, are much more selective when choosing a place to live.

“It would be a boon for creating a safe passageway so they’re not getting creamed every time they cross 186” between ocelot populations in Willacy and Cameron counties, Swarts said.

There have been occasional individual ocelots that have moved back and forth between these two population pockets, but safe transits have been rare.

“For me, it’s really hard to separate these things out, because ultimately the mortality from vehicles and the loss of genetic diversity are really corollaries of habitat loss,” Swarts said. “If it weren’t for habitat loss, you wouldn’t encounter these problems.”