Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Jaguarundi, cougar sightings create stir in South Texas

Wild cats sightings creating a stir

By STEVE SINCLAIR/Valley Morning Star
February 8, 2009 - 10:11PM

If the economy has gone to the dogs, Cameron County has gone to the cats.

Cougar sightings in the eastern part of the county and jaguarundi sightings near Bayview and crossing FM 510 are providing excitement for local wildlife officials.

If confirmed, meaning visual proof, Cameron County would have more species of wild cats than any county in the nation, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Jody Mays.

In addition to reports of cougars and jaguarundis, Cameron County is one of the last strongholds for the endangered ocelot and boasts a sizeable bobcat population.

It's the jaguarundi sightings that are the most intriguing, however.

"I hope it is a jaguarundi, but being 20 years since the last confirmed one, you have to take any sighting as an uncertainty until proven," Mays said.

In both cases, the sightings were made by Texas Parks & Wildlife game wardens.

The first sighting was several weeks ago when the warden saw the cat cross FM 510 heading north.

Another game warden reported a jaguarundi at what is called the La Selva tract near Bayview.

"When I get two independent reports, it supports that they could have seen one," Mays said.

Mike Tewes, of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Kingsville and an expert in Texas native cats, has his doubts.

"I have high confidence about the cougar reports, but I'm skeptical of the jaguarundi reports," Tewes said.

"I hear about sightings, but there is never any documentation (photos). I get reports almost weekly," he said.

"But if there are jaguarundis in the United States, the Valley would be the most likely place to see them," he said.

Tewes went on to say that he "can't rule it out" that there may be one or more jaguarundis in the Lower Valley.

As for the cougar, also called a mountain lion, puma and catamount, that's more of a sure thing. Mays said there have been seven or eight sightings of the big cat at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge over a three-week period.

The last reported cougar sighting was Jan. 22 when "a visitor reported seeing a cougar near Arroyo City near the north end of the refuge," she noted.

Mays is in the process of installing infrared cameras where the rare cats were spotted, hoping for that elusive visual proof.

"For me, it's really intriguing," she said. "We get reports of a jaguarundi just about every year and cougars a couple of times a year. It doesn't matter who sees it. We've got to have proof before we can count it."

At one time, Cameron County was home to five species of wild cats: the jaguarundi, cougar, bobcat, ocelot and jaguar. The last documented sighting of a jaguar was in 1946 when one that had been raiding livestock was shot dead near Olmito.

Mays estimates there are less than 100 ocelots remaining in the United States but "we know of only 30 to 60 individuals."

From 10 to 25 ocelots live at or adjacent to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Cameron County.

She estimates about 100 bobcats call the refuge and adjacent area home.

But why all the recent sightings of cougars and jaguarundis?

"That's a good question," Mays said. "I'm just speculating, but we were in a bad drought for a long time and now we've had two good years of rain and they are bouncing back a little. The prey base is up and the habitat base is up."

Bobcats, ocelots and jaguarundis are relatively small cats and go after small prey. Adult bobcats generally weigh 13 to 23 pounds, ocelots about 20 pounds and jaguarundis about 13 pounds.

It's a different story for cougars.

"Their primary prey is deer and their second and third favorite are feral hogs and javelinas," Tewes said. All three are found at Laguna Atascosa.

"They seldom attack cattle, but occasionally an individual will kill a calf and they can be a problem where they raise sheep and goats," he added.

Tewes said adult male cougars average about 130 pounds and females about 100 pounds. One cougar near Refugio weighed 169 pounds.



Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org

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