Wildlife biologist Jody Mays gingerly approached the cage in the dense, thorny brush at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Peering out with gorgeous feline eyes was a healthy 14–year–old ocelot, trapped overnight as part of the refuge’s monitoring program. The ocelot seemed relaxed, but when, after a brief examination, Mays released the animal, it fled in a nanosecond with lightning speed and cat–like grace.


Speed clearly is an ocelot asset. However, as a newly placed sign near the refuge visitor center says, “speeding kills ocelots.” Automobile speeding. In the past year and a half, vehicles have killed four of the endangered cats on or near the refuge. The species can ill afford those mortalities, and the refuge is working with state and local highway officials to minimize deaths.


There are fewer than 50 ocelots in the wild in the United States. South Texas is the only place in the nation with a breeding population. There are 13 known ocelots, and up to a dozen unidentified, on or near Laguna Atascosa Refuge. There is a separate population of 20–25 ocelots on private ranch land considerably north of the refuge. The numbers are imprecise because ocelots are small (about twice the size of a house cat), nocturnal and highly elusive.


Mays—along with a temporary bio science technician, interns and volunteers—is working to recover the species. The biggest challenge is habitat connectivity, safe connectivity.


Ocelots require Tamaulipan thornscrub habitat—semi–arid thicket of spiny shrubs, trees, grasses and succulents. “If it’s the kind of place that horrifies you to get pushed into, ocelots love it,” says refuge public outreach specialist Nancy Brown.


That native habitat is sparse in south Texas because of agricultural and residential development. So, the refuge is attempting to connect itself to existing fragmented habitat or acquire farmland and, over decades, restore it to Tamaulipan thornscrub.


Working with private landowners and Lower Rio Grande Valley Refuge, Laguna Atascosa Refuge seeks to establish corridors for ocelots between itself and the ranches to the north and Mexico to south. The main thing is “getting everything to come together resource–wise and adjacent–landowner–wise to put the pieces together,” says refuge manager Sonny Perez. “It’s a long–term project.”


To protect ocelots, the refuge advocates road wildlife crossings that can accommodate animals as large as whitetail deer and thus make thoroughfares safer for all wildlife—and drivers. The Texas Department of Transportation and Cameron County have shown willingness to engineer such crossings into the design at the start of a road project, says Perez, “as opposed to trying to retrofit an existing project and squeeze money and having crossings as an afterthought.”



Lack of Genetic Diversity

Mays is also concerned about the refuge ocelots’ lack of genetic diversity. Studies show that the population is losing four percent of its diversity per generation. For example, Mays says, “an ocelot’s nose can be anywhere from solid pink to solid black and anything in between. We’ve lost the solid pink. If you see a photograph of an ocelot with a solid pink nose, it didn´t come from here.” The limited gene pool leaves the population susceptible to catastrophic disease.


To address the problem, refuge staff and partners are preliminarily considering translocating a female ocelot from northern Mexico, where up to 3,000 ocelots occur, to Laguna Atascosa Refuge.


“There’s little to no flow between the two populations in Texas, and then between those populations and Mexico. They used to be connected. They should be connected,” says Mays. “The idea of the translocation is basically a kind of an emergency tactic to help keep the populations that we’ve got from disappearing until we can get these longer–term things like habitat restoration.”


For now, despite ocelots’ dire straits, Mays is simply proud to lead their recovery. “To me, they represent the wildness of nature,” she says. “They´re a unique animal. They’ve got beautiful markings. They have some really neat behaviors that are unusual, just really cool.” To learn more about ocelots, their behavior and efforts to save them, go to: http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/STRC/laguna/Endangered%20Species_Laguna.html.