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Grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars/ mountain lions,bobcats, wolverines, lynx, foxes, fishers and martens are the suite of carnivores that originally inhabited North America after the Pleistocene extinctions. This site invites research, commentary, point/counterpoint on that suite of native animals (predator and prey) that inhabited The Americas circa 1500-at the initial point of European exploration and subsequent colonization. Landscape ecology, journal accounts of explorers and frontiersmen, genetic evaluations of museum animals, peer reviewed 20th and 21st century research on various aspects of our "Wild America" as well as subjective commentary from expert and layman alike. All of the above being revealed and discussed with the underlying goal of one day seeing our Continent rewilded.....Where big enough swaths of open space exist with connective corridors to other large forest, meadow, mountain, valley, prairie, desert and chaparral wildlands.....Thereby enabling all of our historic fauna, including man, to live in a sustainable and healthy environment. - Blogger Rick

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

As discussed on this blog, the 50 to 100 remaining Ocelots calling the USA home reside deep in the south Texas counties of Cameron and Wilacy.....Farmers and developers have cleared 95 percent of the ocelot’s U.S. thornscrub habitat which historically included all of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and southeastern Arizona...........While there has been some recent sightings in Arizona, The Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas is where one of the two remaining populations of ocelots still occurs ............Critical habitat is needed for the Ocelot,,,,,,,,,,,,,Is the USFW Service ever going to put forth such a plan?,,,,,,,,,,Can unrestricted human growth be reigned in and so-called targeted "smart growth" be implemented in time to keep the cats walking South Texas and beyond?

Development vs. Nature: Last chance for ocelots

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Posted: Saturday, September 20, 2014 9:54 pm

There is perhaps no better wildlife topic at the moment for us in South Texas than conservation of one of the most unique and charismatic species in Texas and maybe the United States: the ocelot.

Many Texans are unaware that the only population of ocelots in this country occurs right in their own back yard. Yes, the only breeding population of ocelots left within the United States exists primarily in Cameron and Willacy Counties, and that’s something South Texans should be proud of.

South Texans also might not be aware that this may be the last chance we’ll have to save the ocelot in the United States. The ocelot is one of our neighbors, yet we humans continue to threaten the cat’s survival. The ocelot has several natural threats, like disease, predators and competition from other species. Yet, we make the situation worse when we construct poorly planned and designed roads, which lead to ocelots and other wildlife getting hit by vehicles.
In addition to life-threatening roads, this fast growing area that we call home is quickly being carved up by urban sprawl (rather than smart development). This fragmentation of the landscape makes it nearly impossibly for the ocelot to move from one natural island of brush to another, in effect cutting the cats off from one another.

You may wonder what the concern is all about. When I first moved to South Texas, I thought there was plenty of habitat here. However, the concern with the survival of ocelots and other wildlife is that, although some open space currently exists, it is disappearing quickly. Once the habitat is gone, the species will be gone — forever.
For now, there’s still hope for the ocelot in South Texas. This area has been called “The Last Great Habitat“ because there still is a great deal of green space all around us — particularly in the form of the huge private ranches like the King, Kennedy and Yturria, among others — as well as public lands that focus on habitat conservation.
The Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, where one of the two remaining populations of ocelots still occurs, is the southern gateway to this great habitat. If we act now, we have a real opportunity to preserve that connection to the wild ranches, so our children can experience the “wild South Texas“ we now enjoy.
This opportunity to preserve our wild heritage won’t happen automatically. Ultimately, it is the people of South Texas who will decide what they want: miles of pavement, or miles of green space intermixed with smart development.
I, for one, choose green space with smart development.
Boyd Blihovde works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as refuge manager of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.


Leopardus pardalisESA status: endangered

Ocelot pc Brad Fulk
Beauty may indeed be only skin-deep; that’s never been a problem for the ocelot. With its striking spotted coat, large eyes, and long tail, this mid-sized member of the cat family stands out even among its visually arresting relatives such as the tiger and the leopard.

The ocelot is comparable in size to an oversized housecat, weighing between 16 and 22 lbs. Throughout its historic range in North, Central, and South America, it inhabited diverse environments including tropical and subtropical forests, coastal mangroves, swampy savannas, and thornscrub. Its attractive design includes less-apparent features that make it well-adapted to the thick vegetation of its home: muscular forelimbs for climbing, thickened neck-skin to protect it from attacks, and broad, short paws for pouncing on prey.

 It walks long distances in search of food, seeking out small- to medium-sized birds and mammals and rushing them rather than waiting in ambush or stalking like some other cat species. It wanders and hunts at night and sleeps the day away hidden in heavy brush or up in a tree. The U.S. ocelot population represents the northernmost extent of the species – they used to range through parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and southeastern Arizona (the Arizona population was separated from the others by the Sierra Madres). But now they are known to reside only in parts of Texas, in populations which total fewer than 25 cats.
However, recent sightings in Arizona may reveal another U.S. population.

Historically, people hunted the ocelot for its fur. After 1930, the threats shifted to habitat loss, disease, and inbreeding. The ocelot was listed as endangered in the U.S. portion of its range in 1982. In the modern age of vehicle travel and roads, the ocelot is facing one of its greatest challenges yet. Despite Endangered Species Act protection, the species is struggling to recover in habitat fragmented by roads and traffic. Individuals attempting to find territories away from the crowded core habitat where the breeding populations reside are often killed crossing roads. Dispersing ocelots usually find they have nowhere to go – farmers and developers have cleared 95 percent of the ocelot’s U.S. thornscrub habitat.

 Despite listing the ocelot, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has refused – for 30 years – to create critical habitat protections for this imperiled cat, and that hesitation may prove fatal. From 1991 to 2000 alone, approximately 113,126 acres of suitable ocelot habitat was destroyed in south Texas. Precious thornscrub in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the ocelot’s last U.S. strongholds, is disappearing at an alarming rate. That’s a serious blow for both the ocelot and jaguarundi, which both depend on this increasingly rare habitat type. And, like many other animals on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, the ocelot is threatened by a myriad of human border activities including immigration, drug trafficking, police and military actions, border installations and fences, and artificial lighting.

Without critical habitat protections, ocelots are unable to expand into new territories and connect with other isolated ocelot populations. With no place else to go, the ocelot may be taking the long walk into extinction. WildEarth Guardians is working hard to protect critical ocelot habitat in order to give these beautiful cats the room they need to roam.  
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  • Every Cat Counts: Conserving Ocelots 

    A recently tagged male Texas ocelot. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
    A recently tagged male Texas ocelot. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
    By Matt Miller, senior science writer
    In South Texas, every ocelot counts. Losing even one can have grave repercussions for the species’ future.
    The small, spotted cat – twice the size of your standard house cat – faces a precarious existence as it navigates ever-dwindling habitat, roads and a border fence.
    The ocelot population here is, at best, in the dozens. Can they really survive?
    That’s what I’m here to find out, spending time with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists working on public land and Nature Conservancy scientists working on private land. Together, their research and conservation efforts offer the best hope for the elusive cat along the border.

    “A Fight with a Box of Thumb Tacks”

    An ocelot photographed via camera trap. Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
    An ocelot photographed via camera trap. Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
    Hilary Swarts bursts from her office, a big smile on her face and radiating energy. She runs the ocelot research program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, a South Texas refuge that is a stronghold for the cats.
    Today, she’s going to show me prime ocelot habitat and the refuge’s extensive research and monitoring program. “I just love to think about these cats,” she says. “Some days I can’t believe this is my job.”
    She looks too young for her resume – she’s studied monkeys in Belize and Suriname, gorillas in Rwanda, island foxes on the Channel Islands. But this is perhaps a more vexing challenge.
    In fact, despite her happy demeanor, I later learn she has been managing a bit of a crisis.
    The radio collar of one of the refuge’s ocelots has been emitting a “mortality signal” – a steady beep that means the collar is not moving. And it hasn’t been moving for 8 hours.
    It could mean the ocelot has merely lost the collar. Or it could mean it is dead.
    She apologizes that she’ll have to be checking her cell phone throughout the day to see if this ocelot has been killed, as assistants track down the collar in the brush by homing in on the signal.
    The assistants are experienced in ocelot tracking, but Swarts is clear. If the assistants run into any problems, she’ll have to leave my tour. Ocelots come first.
    It is a young female – one of a pair of one-year-old ocelots confirmed on the refuge this year, the first evidence of successful breeding in several years.
    Every ocelot counts. If this one is dead, it would be a huge blow.
    But in some ways, Swarts is used to dealing with bad news. The ocelot, after all, is clinging to a precarious existence here.
    Ocelots are more commonly associated with tropical forest environments – the Amazon, for instance. But they once ranged as far north as Arkansas.
    In the northern part of their range, ocelots thrive in thornscrub – the thick, dense forest cover that once dominated much of South Texas. The problem is, not much of that habitat is left.
    Brush is pretty much incompatible with human use. Even conservationists acknowledge that it takes a lot of effort to find a human value for it. You can’t live there, you can’t farm there, you can’t drill in it.
    But for ocelots? Ocelots love the thick stuff.
    Impenetrable? Not if you're an ocelot! Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
    Impenetrable? Not if you’re an ocelot! Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
    Swarts drives me to a prime patch of brush cover, an “ocelot crossing” sign signifying we’re entering the cat’s realm. I try to peer into the habitat and see…not much. It seems impenetrable, as if a mouse might not be able to move without getting hopelessly tangled. Thorns cover everything.
    “It’s ugly getting through that stuff when we have to retrieve a radio collar or a camera trap,” says Swarts. “Walking through that is like getting in a fight with a box of thumb tacks.”
    I imagine an ocelot’s beautiful, glossy pelt being torn to shreds. Swarts sets me straight.
    “It will blow your mind to see them going through this,” she says. “We have sequences of camera trap images. They’re small and flexible and they move through it gracefully. It is worth it for them to live there. In the thornscrub, they’re safe.”
    While the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Conservancy and other groups are actively restoring the habitat, it can take years for the brush to be fully established. Throughout much of the area, there are fragments of habitat often far apart from each other.
    When ocelots move, they enter the fast-changing human realm of South Texas – a world of roads and speeding cars and tall fences.

    On the Road, Again

    A sign alerts motorists at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
    A sign alerts motorists at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
    The Rio Grande Valley is known among birders and other naturalists for its spectacular protected areas – three national wildlife refuges, state parks and private preserves. The areas hold spectacular numbers and variety of wildlife.
    But many of these areas are not connected – and what fills the space between has largely been developed. The valley has a growing population, currently at 1.2 million people. This many people cause a number of threats to ocelots, but the biggest is roads.
    “If land is undisturbed, ocelots will use it,” says Robert Jess, Senior Refuge Manager of the South Texas Refuge Complex. “The problem is, a lot of that undisturbed land is disconnected. To get from one place to another, ocelots have to cross roads. And vehicle traffic is just plain horrible on cats.”
    Swarts drives me along a scenic route – the type of wildlife viewing loop common on national wildlife refuges. She stops along one stretch of bumpy habitat, and points to the road. A lactating female was killed there in 2009. A male was killed on a nearby state highway last November.
    It’s why she’s so concerned about the mortality signal on the radio collar. To lose one of the young ocelots on the refuge would be perhaps an even bigger blow after November’s death. A young female has the potential to contribute to population growth by breeding and raising kittens.
    Swarts remains hopeful. The Texas Department of Transportation, she says, is taking a cooperative role in examining how roads can be more wildlife friendly. They’re currently implementing plans for wildlife crossings on a road improvement project adjacent to the refuge and removing sections of concrete barriers on the busy highway south of the refuge where the male ocelot was killed in November.
    A refuge support group, the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, recently worked with state agencies to create a specialty license plate to support ocelot conservation in Texas. Awareness and support are growing.
    The Border Fence could have dramatic impacts on wildlife movements. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
    The Border Fence could have dramatic impacts on wildlife movements. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
    Still, ocelots face other challenges. One of the new ones is the Border Fence, the 30-foot-high division between the United States and Mexico recently completed.
    I’ve spent several days driving around the border towns, and encounter no shortage of strong opinions on the fence. Emotions are running high, as recent news reports from this very area indicate. Many express skepticism at how well it is performing its intended purpose.
    But most conservationists agree that it is very effective at stopping wildlife movements.
    There’s a lack of research, in no small part because most environmental laws were suspended to construct the fence. That means that environmental impact studies weren’t conducted. But it clearly has the potential to cut off pathways used by wide-roaming animals like ocelots.
    “All refuges have issues to deal with,” says Jess, who has worked on refuges across the country, from Florida to Alaska. “But the level of complexity here is just off the charts.”

    Monitoring an Elusive Cat

    A Texas ocelot. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
    A Texas ocelot. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
    When a small population of animals is disconnected, part of the challenge is maintaining genetic diversity. With small ocelot populations hanging on in fragmented habitats, is this a risk?
    “When the population is this low, we get afraid about the possibility of inbreeding depression,” says Swarts. “But we don’t have enough data, or even enough research subjects, to be able to say if the ocelots are showing signs of suppressed reproductive success, or disease susceptibility. We don’t have a lot of reproductive or disease data.”
    And that is what she is here to rectify. Swarts is leading a continuing extensive effort to collect that data on ocelots and use that help direct land acquisition, habitat restoration and other conservation efforts.
    But how to gain information on an elusive animal that spends much of its time in thick, thorny vegetation?
    We first pull up to a live trap baited with a live pigeon (the ocelot’s preferred prey are birds and wood rats). The pigeon is kept in a separate compartment and isn’t harmed; in fact, Swarts is fond of these birds, kept in a spacious pen until taking their turns at decoys.
    Hilary Swarts with one of the decoy pigeons. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
    Hilary Swarts with one of the decoy pigeons. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
    At any given time, from mid-fall to mid-spring, as many as 39 live traps are set in five areas of the refuge. When conditions are too hot, posing a health threat to the animals, trapping is suspended.
    Any captured animals are radio collared and/or monitored with a GPS tracking device. This provides researchers with crucial data on their habitat use and movements.
    Currently, there are four collared ocelots. Today, Swarts is hoping one of those animals isn’t dead.
    Additionally, 40 to 50 camera traps are set up at likely locations around the refuge. These are often set up near “guzzlers,” permanent water sources established by the refuge to not only draw ocelots, but to help wildlife survive drought.
    The camera trap images provide a picture of ocelot populations on the refuge. “Each ocelot’s spot pattern is unique, like a human fingerprint,” says Swarts. “For instance, one has a pattern that looks like a carrot. Another’s spots look like googly eyes. When we have a camera trap image, we can feel very confident in identifying individual ocelots.”
    This year, camera traps verified the two young, previously unrecorded ocelots – a hopeful sign that the ocelots were breeding. When captured, Swarts verified they had a one-year-old female and one-year-old male.
    The ocelot program interns were currently tracking the female ocelot’s collar to see its fate. Losing one now would mean the loss of a future breeding animal, important to the species. It would be the loss of data for the research effort.
    And it would be the loss of an animal that ignited hope among conservationists and the public at large.
    After our tour, Swarts excuses herself. She has to go see for herself. See if today would bring more bad news.
    Hours later, I receive a text: “The interns retrieved the little girl’s collar. Just the collar. So all is well in Ocelot Land.”
    The ocelot had merely lost the collar on that thicky, thorny brush.
    All is well. For now. But what does the future hold?
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