Rio Grande Valley Bureau
Web Posted: 12/09/2006 11:46 PM CST
LAGUNA ATASCOSA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE — The small group of retirees and wildlife biologists left the gates of 10 traps perched open, each tucked into thickets of brush, each leading to a caged bird they hoped would entice an ocelot.
The endangered leopard-like cats thrive in habitat impenetrable to humans, from here to Argentina, but their outlook is grim.
Nocturnal, and roughly three times the size of a domestic feline, they once roamed Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, but fewer than 100 are left in this country, all in deep South Texas.
Most are here, on a federal wildlife refuge abutting the Laguna Madre that has thousands of acres of thick Tamaulipan thornscrub — but not enough to sustain their dwindling population.
Environmentalists are trying to save them by planting seedlings near the refuge and other parts of the Rio Grande Valley that will one day grow to thick brush. A new agreement also encourages nearby landowners to grow ocelot habitat and biologists have been doing field research for years.
"We are just trying to give them enough room to exist and be healthy," said Jody Mays, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who works here studying the rarely seen creatures. "There are just too few ... and there is no genetic fresh blood."
She hopes to find new ways to help the population recover, but just catching one is difficult.
The traps are set every winter to address health issues, take blood samples, look at new specimens and check radio collars used to track the animals. But this year the first few weeks of trapping netted only a suspicious pile of scat, as well as a few hawks, raccoons and a rodent, which were released.
The "bait birds" in the traps are hardy veterans from seasons past.
An intern making the rounds on a recent morning, Steven Borrego, 39, quipped when he saw an empty trap, "All right chicken, we'll give you some more scratch tomorrow."
But the cats are out there. A motion- and heat-sensing camera shows them in the same area, strutting through in intricate gold and tan fur with black spots and blotches, looking like something out of a tropical jungle rather than the United States.
The cats' fur blends in with the thickets, which partly explains why development is their enemy. As their habitat fragments, isolated groups of ocelots live farther and farther apart, reducing their reproduction possibilities — and drawing them out of the safety of the thorns.
"It's very vulnerable if it comes out in the open," Mays said, adding that ocelots' own nature puts them at risk because when males are mature they search out their own territory, now almost impossible to find.
"Road mortality is the No. 1 cause of death in the few that are left," Mays said.
Alligators on the refuge have also claimed a few ocelots in recent years, she said.
In an effort to broaden the cats' range and boost their chances of recovery, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New York-based nonprofit Environmental Defense signed a "Safe Harbor" agreement in November that encourages landowners in Kenedy, Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties to plant native brush.
If they make their land more hospitable to the cats' prime habitat, they will have more leeway with Endangered Species Act restrictions and won't give up their rights to development.
"Landowners must feel comfortable in allowing endangered species onto their lands. This agreement allows that to happen," Benjamin Tuggle, regional director of the wildlife service, said in a news release.
Similar agreements are in effect in 17 states for various species, but the pact is just getting started here. No one has signed up, although some landowners are already providing acreage for habitat without it.
One landowner who lives near the refuge and asked not to be named was skeptical.
He said he's hesitant to get locked into anything and possibly lose out on development opportunities in the coming years — for example if another golf course opened in the area to draw from tourism on nearby South Padre Island.
"It would be hard to sign something like that because you don't want to restrict yourself," he said, adding, "I am not against this. I just haven't read it."
Environmental Defense wildlife analyst Karen Chapman, who is based in Brownsville, explained that "beyond a certain time frame you may remove the habitat that you have restored without penalty even if you remove the endangered species that it hosts."
"It just allows some flexibility," she said, but added that the hope is that the brush will remain for a long time.
Chapman has been overseeing the planting of about 100,000 seedlings at $1 apiece on 600 acres, mainly near the refuge, to try to help the ocelot gain ground. Environmental Defense helps find funding for the plants.
"These are neat cats, they are native to the region and if we just let them disappear from the area we are not doing our part," she said. "There's just not enough public land left to save this species."
She said she hoped that in 20 years the seedlings will have grown to thick avenues of brush, providing enough habitat so that some ocelots "don't have to be crammed into an area with everybody else, or fight over the females."
If that's successful, the land will provide enough habitat for five or six ocelots.
A recent federal sting dubbed "Operation Cat Tale" slapped eight people from California, Oregon, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas with fines or brief jail time for selling or trafficking the felines across state lines. In one case, a jacket made of ocelot fur was sold on eBay.
The ocelots were not believed to have come from the wild, said the Portland, Ore.-based federal prosecutor for the case.
Among the defendants was Amelia Rasmussen, 57, of Nixon, who was fined $15,000 for buying two ocelots — Maya and Inca — from the Geyserville, Calif.-based corporation Isis Society for Inspirational Studies, whose members include followers of the ancient Egyptian goddess of nature.
Rasmussen, who has exotic cats on a ranch near Seguin, believes the best way to save the ocelot is in captivity.
"If we leave them in the wild where they are quickly disappearing, then we are going to lose them," she said by phone Friday.
For those interested in conserving them in the wild, the Ocelot Festival will be held Feb. 10 at the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen. Money raised at the event aids the nonprofit Friends of the Laguna Atascosa in supporting habitat restoration and funding for rainwater catchers and the cameras.
There is also the "Adopt an Ocelot Fund," which is used to bolster their existence in the wild. More information on how to contribute is available by calling the refuge at (956) 748-3607.