Sunday, September 17, 2006

Texas drought hitting ocelots, bobcats hard

Valley Morning Star

September 17, 2006 - For some of the Rio Grande Valley’s wildlife, the September rains have been too little, too late.

For example, last month Cameron County ranch manager Lou Powell spotted dozens of vultures cir-cling over one of the pastures.

It raised his curiosity. Was one of the cows dead? He investigated and found two dead deer.

“I just assumed they were weak from the drought,” he said.

One by one, Rio Grande Valley ponds and resacas are drying up. And as the ponds go dry, wildlife be-come the victims. For an area of the country that depends on the ecotourism dollar, wildlife losses are important.

This year at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, one dead ocelot and two dead bobcats have been found. It hasn’t been determined if the deaths were drought related.

What rain the Valley has received in September has been localized. For example, Harlingen has re-ceived 2.23 inches through early Tuesday afternoon, compared to only 0.18 inches for Port Isabel and 0.51 inches for Brownsville.

“It’s probably not as bad as when I got here in 2002, but it’s getting to that point,” said John Wallace, Laguna Atascosa manager on the prolonged drought. “Some of the wildlife I’ve been seeing are not in the condition they should be in.”

Laguna Atascosa and adjacent land contain the nation’s largest population of the endangered ocelot, with about three dozen. There are less than 100 in the entire country, all living in South Texas.

Most birds can fly to waterholes, mammals, reptiles and amphibians must endure or perish.

“Drought or dry conditions eliminate prey and the animals get into a poor condition,” Wallace said. “Parasites such as ticks and fleas become a problem, also intestinal parasites.

“Drought conditions do stress wildlife. The animals have to travel farther to find fresh water and they wind up crossing roads they are not used to and can become road kill,” Wallace said.

Most of the water holes at Laguna Atascosa have long since gone dry, though the big lake, for which the refuge is named, still has water along with the Cayo Atascosa, an irrigation ditch. The Cayo, however, has been found to contain traces of pesticides, Wallace said.

The refuge’s alligator population has likely taken a big hit. During droughts, gators dig holes in the bank where they can escape the sun and wait for rain.

Lack of water is also a problem at the ranch, Powell said.

“All of our ponds are dry, which has put a lot of stress on the animals,” he said.

“We’ve trapped 25 wild pigs in the past few weeks by setting up traps next to water troughs — the only places that have water.”

He has noticed lots of deer and wild pigs drinking from the troughs, which have to be kept full for the cattle.

“The pigs can actually smell water before it reaches the surface and will find it and tear up the water lines in the process,” Powell said.

Repairing the waterlines takes time and money, but has to be done to make certain cattle don’t suffer the same fate as wildlife.

At Laguna Atascosa, refuge personnel are giving Mother Nature a helping hand with three guzzlers that funnel rainwater into large tanks for wildlife. In addition, there are four smaller water troughs filled as needed.

That’s seven artificial water sources for the 45,187-acre main refuge unit.

“I’m sure they have made a difference, but any freshwater will make a difference,” Wallace said.

Powell is also giving Mother Nature a helping hand. For the past two weeks, he has tied a five-gallon bucket to a palm tree near his ranch home for a thirsty doe and her fawn.

When all is said and done, the only real relief will come when rainfall comes.

“It’s just part of nature here,” Wallace said. “You do have droughts and you do have wet periods. It’s feast or famine.”

Posted on Sep 17, 06 | 12:00 am id=72753_0_10_0_C

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