Looking southward from its last remaining Texas habitat, the endangered ocelot faces a deadly gauntlet if it is to cross the Rio Grande and reach its ancestral tribemates. Decimated by inbreeding, the spotted wildcat’s future depends very much on mingling with its Mexican cousins.
Yet reaching them means traversing miles of highways, wind turbines, open fields and natural gas pipelines. The Mexican side is no less perilous. Development has also wiped out natural habitat there, and years of cartel violence have hobbled research into Mexican ocelot populations just south of the Rio Grande.
The small cat’s latest challenge is the Trump administration’s push to erect a wall along much of the Texas-Mexico border. Environmental groups and anti-wall politicians have argued that a physical barrier dividing the two countries could destroy the species by disrupting its migration patterns.
In reality, however, the ocelot’s fight for survival is far more complicated. An examination of the science and politics surrounding the species shows the border wall is just one small piece of an ocelot puzzle that will require close cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico to solve even as diplomatic tensions between the countries rise.
DNA studies show Texas ocelots haven’t crossed the border regularly for decades and live hemmed into two groups miles from the Rio Grande. Over the years, two general strategies for saving them have emerged. But both face significant challenges and could take years or decades before they begin boosting ocelot numbers.
Since the 1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s strategy to protect and restore the ocelot has focused on building wildlife corridors that ideally would reconnect the 80 or so remaining Texas cats to their cousins in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas. The effort has included millions of dollars in land acquisitions and road crossings for the ocelot as the cat’s natural habitat continues to disappear in the Rio Grande Valley.
“We certainly have our work cut out for us,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge manager Boyd Blihovde said. “It’s a race against time. We’re working to make those connections available.”
The border wall wouldn’t disrupt the ocelot’s natural migrations — years of urbanization, agricultural development and habitat loss accomplished that long ago.
But a continuous border wall throughout the Rio Grande Valley would likely end the dream of re-establishing that lost connection.
Other researchers say the cat’s best chance for salvation lies not to the south and across the river, but in the mostly empty northern reaches of the Rio Grande Valley and private ranches some 60 miles from the border. There, at least 50 ocelots live on private lands and more might be hiding in the brush. Yet persuading landowners to participate in ocelot conservation schemes that come with land use restrictions isn’t an easy sell in South Texas, where a strong independent streak runs through ranchers and landowners.
The two isolated islands of ocelots remaining in Texas might not have time to wait for either strategy to unfold.
Texas ocelots have been inbreeding for decades, making them vulnerable to genetic deformities and potentially rendering them unable to reproduce. If something doesn’t change soon, scientists believe they could become extinct within a generation.
That means the Mexican government holds the key to the ocelot’s survival, at least in the short term. Officials and environmental groups are seeking to physically move at least one Mexican cat to Texas so it can pass on its genes and buy the species some time.
The process might sound simple, but it requires persuading Mexico to give up one of its own endangered ocelots. Even before the election of frequent Mexico needler Trump, the translocation effort had been plagued by delays and problems, as well as the raging cartel violence across the border in Tamaulipas.
‘Ranches are the future’
Named after the Nauhuatl word for jaguar, ocelots are much smaller than their namesake and at about 30 pounds, about twice as big as an average house cat. Elusive, nocturnal and solitary, they feed on small rodents and birds and are extremely hard to spot. Many false sightings involve the more plentiful and aggressive bobcat.
Tamaulipan thornscrub, their preferred habitat, once proliferated across the region when ocelots roamed as far north as Louisiana and Arkansas. But after decades of clearing for agriculture and urban development, the brush now makes up less than 1 percent of the Rio Grande Valley. Hunters, seeking the ocelot’s spotted pelts, and speeding automobiles, responsible for at least half a dozen deaths in recent years, further reduced their numbers.
“The ones who walked around a lot, who were more aggressive, were more apt to be run over or shot,” said Duquesne University biology professor Jan Janecka, who has extensively studied ocelot genetics.
Today, the two small remaining groups of Texas ocelots cling tenaciously to separate islands of dense brush in far South Texas. About 20 live on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Laguna Atascosa Refuge 15 miles or so north of the river. A second, larger group lives on private ranches in Willacy County.
The two groups represent the different approaches researchers have attempted to reverse the species’ decline.
A few miles outside of Raymondville, the rolling grasslands on Frank Yturria’s large family ranch give way to an impossible thicket of catclaw bushes, spiny hackberry and mesquite. The impenetrable tangle, filled with black widow spiders, rattlesnakes and scorpions, is unwelcome to human movement, but it represents one of the finest examples of ocelot habitat left in Texas.
Not far from there, Texas A&M Kingsville wildlife conservation professor Michael Tewes trapped the first ocelot of the modern era in 1982. At the time, it wasn’t clear if there were any remaining in the Texas wilds. Since then, Tewes has become the dean of ocelot research, training a generation of scientists at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M Kingsville.
Over the years, he has concluded their future lies in these remote ranches. Wedged between the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints of Sarita and Falfurrias, the private spreads have more undisturbed habitat than the border area and have fewer highways and roads.
Tewes argues that persuading more landowners to conserve ocelot habitat “should be the No. 1 priority and become the most important strategy for ocelot recovery in the United States. Landowners, he argues, have a natural interest in conserving habitat on their ranches for lucrative hunting leases and raising cattle. “The ocelot is an indirect beneficiary of that,” he said.
Yturria was among the first landowners to embrace ocelot protection, and he has given thousands of acres in conservation easements.
Yet persuading other landowners to take part in ocelot conservation hasn’t been easy, and only a handful have joined the effort.
Janecka said many ranchers are reluctant to open their property to ocelot research, fearing the regulatory and development restrictions that come with having an endangered species on their land. “There’s plenty of brush, but the mentality is that you don’t want the government telling you how to manage your land,” he said.
“Overcoming the perception that endangered species may be a liability on private lands is a significant challenge,” states the Fish and Wildlife Service’s official recovery plan.
A corridor to Mexico
Ground zero for the government’s ocelot restoration work is the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge near the salty marshes of the Laguna Madre and nearby South Padre Island. At least 17 ocelots live in a largely isolated patch of thornscrub, where recovery efforts are aimed at expanding their habitat, in hopes of reaching their Mexican relatives.
“In a dream world, they would connect with the Tamaulipas population,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife lead ocelot biologist Hilary Swarts.
Ocelot recovery dovetails with the agency’s larger goal of preserving natural land in a region undergoing warp speed urbanization. The Rio Grande Valley, home to one of the world’s unique ecosystems, is one of the fastest growing regions of the state.
The agency’s official recovery plan calls for protected land “corridors” to connect the Atascosa and Willacy groups, and to the Rio Grande to the south.
Blihovde said the agency, in partnership with nonprofits like the Nature Conservancy, is close to building a corridor from Atascosa to the protected lands of Bahia Grande several miles to the south, fueled in part by settlement money from the Deepwater Horizon spill, and is hopeful about connecting smaller fragments of brush all the way to the river.
The route, however, is riven by a number of human-made and natural impediments, such as a planned second causeway to South Padre Island, which transportation planners have slated for the area just south of the ocelot refuge.
To get ocelots past the roads and highways near the refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife worked with the Texas Department of Transportation, which has spent millions of dollars in undercrossings officials hope will lead the cats safely into new habitat areas. A half-dozen of the tunnels are being built into a newly constructed road just outside the refuge in hopes of reducing vehicular strikes.
So far, however, not a single ocelot has used an undercrossing.
“We had one approach and check it out, but didn’t go in,” Swarts said. “I think it will take a little while to get them accustomed. If we can get vehicular mortality down that changes everything.”
Despite the cats’ hesitation, Blihovde remains confident that providing a pathway south can still save the ocelot. “Before the development was so intense in this area, there was a connectivity,” he said. “We’re still moving forward here at Fish and Wildlife to make it happen.”
Tewes, however, is less certain. The wildlife corridors “may have achieved other important conservation goals, but they don’t seem to have helped the ocelot,” he wrote in The Wildlife Professional last year.
Research slowed by cartel violence
In the 1990s, a Mexican ocelot journeyed across the Rio Grande and was spotted at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, but later genetic testing shows it didn’t mate and introduce its genes into the Texas population. Janecka, who has published several studies of ocelot DNA, said it has been decades since there was genetic exchange between the two populations.
“My best guess is that (the Texas ocelots) got disconnected from those south of the river in the ’20s or ’30s,” he said. The separation has been catastrophic for the Texas cats. Scientists agree that the quickest way to jump-start the Texas ocelots, and reduce problems related to inbreeding, is to persuade the Mexican government to give up some of its cats, which it also considers endangered. By breeding the two populations together, scientists hope to inject new genes into the Texas ocelots.
Wildlife officials initially hoped to introduce a Mexican cat years ago. But initial research efforts on ranches just south of the border fell victim to exploding violence between the Zetas and Gulf Cartel in Tamaulipas.
Swarts said that on at least one occasion, researchers were ordered off a ranch that cartel operatives were seeking to commandeer. In 2011, a wildlife census project was interrupted when “drug gangs stole our cameras,” a field report stated.
Recently, scientists began working again on protected land about 120 miles south of the border. “We take a lot of precautions, talk to the people on the ranches before we start,” said researcher Rogelio Carrera, professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon. “It was a great surprise for us; we found a very high number of animals.”
After a year of camera trapping, scientists identified 88 individual ocelots this winter, a number researchers hope is high enough to persuade the Mexican government to release a few.
The main barrier now could be political. “Now it’s the administrative efforts,” Carrera said. “We don’t know how long it will take.”
U.S. wildlife officials must also convince their Mexican counterparts that they have taken the proper precautions to ensure a Mexican cat’s safety. The costly underpasses near Brownsville are in part meant to show the U.S. government’s commitment to preventing vehicle strikes.
“The worst thing that could happen is that we get one from Mexico and it gets hit by a car,” Blihovde said.
Beyond the logistical hurdles researchers have faced for years in trying to introduce the Mexican and U.S. cats, some advocates worry a new obstacle could impede efforts to save the endangered cat: Mexico’s opposition to the border wall and its anger over Trump’s frequent assertion that Mexico will pay for it. The issue could grow even murkier with Mexico’s July presidential election, in which a leftist candidate who has condemned the border wall as a “criminal act” leads polls by a healthy margin.
“International cooperation on any type of conservation project on the Mexican-U.S. border is presently jeopardized,” said Thomas DeMaar, senior veterinarian at the Gladys Porter Zoo, former president of the Friends of Laguna Atascosa advocacy group and frequent contributor to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s ocelot recovery program. “For that reason, any request made to the Mexican government could potentially be declined for completely unscientific reasons because they are sort of angry and they have a right to be angry.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza downplayed the effect any diplomatic tension would have on scientific cooperation, saying the U.S. and Mexican wildlife agencies engaged in ocelot protection have “managed to keep the politics to a minimum.”
Carrera, the ocelot scientist, said he is hopeful the diplomatic dust-up over the wall won’t influence the Mexican government’s decision to give Texas an ocelot. “There’s always been good cooperation and exchange of endangered species,” he said. “The wall is a problem, we know that. But I think the authorities in Mexico are going to be very open.”