What is an ocelot and where are they found?
Ocelots are a small, spotted wild cat species typically weighing between 15 and 35 pounds. They can be found in the United States in South Texas and sometimes Arizona as well as nearly every country in Central and South America. The cats are notoriously elusive—they are crepuscular or most active at dawn and dusk. They tend to sleep at night and lay low during mid-day and live in dense vegetation, such as thorn scrub brushlands in Texas. In Texas, one population of ocelots is found on private ranches in Willacy and Kenedy Counties and a separate population is found at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron County. Ocelots hunt mostly for rodents, rabbits, birds, and reptiles.
Why are ocelots federally endangered?
Across its range, the ocelot faces threats from overexploitation and habitat loss. In the United States specifically, there are believed to be fewer than 100 resident breeding ocelots because of historical habitat loss and overexploitation (through predator control activities like hunting, trapping, and poisoning). Ocelots in Texas continue to be threatened by low genetic diversity due to inbreeding as well as mortalities from vehicle strikes.
What would it take for ocelots to be recovered in the United States?
For ocelots to be recovered and delisted from the Endangered Species Act (ESA), one criterion is that the population in the wild throughout Texas needs to include at least 200 ocelots for a period of at least 10 years. This goal can be supported by both an increase in the size of existing populations in Texas and the establishment of a reintroduced population on historical but currently unoccupied habitat.
What has and hasn’t been done for ocelot conservation in the United States?
Ocelot populations and habitat in Texas have been protected by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) in the National Wildlife Refuge System and at conservation easements as well as by private landowners like the East Foundation and the Yturria Ranch. Restoration of ocelot habitat (Tamaulipan thornscrub) promoted by agencies and non-governmental organizations on public and private lands has increased the available area for ocelots to live and breed. Additionally, the Texas Department of Transportation has constructed wildlife crossings near ocelot habitat to reduce ocelots’ risk of mortality from vehicle strikes. A new ocelot population has never been reintroduced to Texas nor have any wild ocelots from other countries been translocated to Texas to add genetic diversity.
Why do the partners want to explore the possibility of reintroducing a new ocelot population in Texas?
Project partners want to increase the number of ocelots in Texas to contribute to ocelot recovery. Reintroducing ocelots to part of the historical range would increase the number of ocelots in the state, expand ocelots’ range in Texas, add to ocelots’ genetic diversity in the state (decreasing vulnerability to disease and physiological defects), and create resiliency to hurricane impacts should the population be established away from the Gulf of Mexico. Further, partners support the ocelot’s intrinsic existence and are committed to supporting ocelots’ long-term survival in Texas as a native, iconic species for generations to come. The partners are proud to work with landowners to move recovery efforts forward as we learn to ecologically manage wildlife in the 21st century and improve the landscape as stewards and conservationists.
If a new ocelot population is established, what type of impacts could there be on humans or our natural resources?
As an elusive and small cat, ocelots do not have any impacts on human safety. Further, ocelots hunt a variety of species but focus mostly on small rodents. While there are accounts of possible small livestock (primarily poultry) depredation by ocelots in Latin America and in Texas in the early 1900s, there is no evidence that ocelots impact the viability of any population of livestock or wildlife species in Texas, especially because ocelots tend to avoid humans and areas where humans live.
Where could we get ocelots for a reintroduced population?
Project partners plan to assess a variety of possible source stocks that would be ecologically and genetically suitable for potential reintroduction to Texas. One possible source is ocelots bred in American zoos by crossing zoo-based ocelots with genetic material collected from wild ocelots in Texas. Partners will also assess the feasibility of translocating wild ocelots. It will be required that any potential source population can sustain the donation of individuals to the reintroduced population. Further analyses will be completed to ensure that the reintroduced population’s genetics are consistent with those of existing ESA-listed ocelots in Texas.
What policies or rules could be used to create a new population of ocelots?
There are different federal regulatory options that would allow for ocelot reintroduction. Two tools given the most serious consideration by the USFWS include an ESA 10(j) experimental population rule or an ESA Safe Harbor Agreement. For ocelot reintroduction, the partners seek the support of both the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and landowners whose properties might be occupied by reintroduced ocelots.
What is an ESA 10(j) rule, and how would it affect private property rights should ocelots be reintroduced to part of their former range?
A 10(j) rule created by the USFWS would allow for a new ocelot population to be reintroduced to land outside ocelots’ current range but within their historical range. This new population, geographically isolated from the current wild populations, would be designated as “experimental.” The experimental population may be further designated as either essential or nonessential. A nonessential experimental designation would allow the usual take prohibitions and consultation requirements of the ESA to be relaxed. As such, a 10(j) rule for reintroduced ocelots could make certain that incidental harm to the animals would not be illegal if it happened as a result of otherwise lawful activities, including traditional management or land use. In other words, landowners in an ocelot reintroduction area could continue to manage their lands without concern about violating the ESA by unintentionally harming a member of the reintroduced ocelot population.
What is an ESA Safe Harbor Agreement, and how would it affect private property rights should ocelots be reintroduced to part of their former range?
A Safe Harbor Agreement is a voluntary partnership between a private landowner and the USFWS. Landowners that enter into a Safe Harbor Agreement agree to pursue activities to help conserve a listed species and are then assured that no restrictions or different management activities outside of the agreement will be expected of them. This allows a private property to contribute to a listed species’ conservation or reintroduction without the concern of additional regulation.
What would the regulatory process look like for reintroducing ocelots?
No policy proposal would be made without proper supporting documentation concerning reintroduction plans. Further, an ESA action must first be published by USFWS in the Federal Register. It is then subject to a public comment period of at least 30 days. Public comments must be considered before the action can be finalized and implemented.
Have other species been reintroduced to their former range in the United States?
The USFWS has reintroduced many species from the Endangered Species List, including bald eagles, gray wolves, black-footed ferrets, and California condors.
Can local communities contribute to the effort? If so, how?
Local communities are encouraged to follow and participate in the progress of this project to educate themselves and each other about the conservation status of ocelots and this project. Communities can watch for further updates on how to participate.