By STEVE SINCLAIR
VALLEY MORNING STAR
Nov. 1, 2009, 10:31PM
A recent ocelot road casualty at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife refuge has put the spotlight on one of the nation's most endangered mammals.
On Sunday morning, Oct. 18, a bicyclist discovered the carcass of an ocelot along Bayside Drive, according to refuge manager Sonny Perez.
"It was an ocelot that hadn't previously been reported," Perez said. "It was a female, and we don't know if it had any offspring. We also don't know if it was traveling with another adult," he added.
Traps and cameras were set out to determine if a companion adult or kittens were with it, but none were found.
Perez said the refuge has taken steps to prevent more road casualties. The speed limit will be reduced from 25 mph to 15 mph through certain ocelot habitat and more speed bumps will be installed.
In addition, Perez asks motorists to use caution while driving at the refuge.
"It's a balancing act trying to protect ocelots and providing people with the opportunity to see the refuge," he noted.
The death of just one ocelot is tragic, Perez said, adding that the estimated number of ocelots remaining in the United States has been lowered from less than 80 to less than 50. A decade ago, the estimated number of ocelots remaining in the United States was fewer than 100.
Michael Tewes, coordinator of the Feline Research Program at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Kingsville, said the small population is cause for concern.
"No doubt that the population decline is very serious in Texas," he said. "Our models suggest they will disappear (from Texas) in the next 50 years unless we intervene with support and rescue methods.
"We do want to increase the population by restoring habitat and working with willing land owners who want to expand ocelot habitat on their property," Tewes said.
Ocelots, an endangered species since 1972, exist in a couple of pockets in South Texas — Laguna Atascosa and ranchland to the north in southern Kenedy County.
Despite lowering the official estimate of ocelots in the United States, Perez remains optimistic.
"Even though it was upsetting to lose this individual, the week before we were able to document another individual we thought was gone, but evidently not," he said.
Perez said the area where the ocelot was killed had been studied "pretty intensively" and the presence of a previously unknown cat "gives us hope that there are other ocelots out there we don't yet know about."
Ocelots at the refuge and adjacent land are regularly trapped, measured, weighed, given rabies vaccinations and fitted with a radio transmitting collar to help biologists learn about the elusive cat's movements and territorial needs.
Loss of habitat
Ocelots are primarily nocturnal animals that differ from bobcats by their longer tails, shorter legs and elaborate coat pattern.
The biggest threat to ocelots is loss of habitat, according to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service news release. In the last 75 years, more than 95 percent of native habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas has been cleared.
Some of that habitat is often broken up into smaller tracts of land, fragmented by urbanization, agriculture, golf courses and other development.
Tewes said the main causes of ocelot mortality in South Texas are disease, being hit by vehicles and sometimes fights between the felines.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://wwww.bigcatrescue.org