Questions and answers about the ocelot and project impacts
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 because they are shy, are crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk), and they live in dense vegetation, such as thornscrub brushlands in Texas. In Texas, one population of ocelots is found on private ranches in Willacy, Kenedy, and Kleberg Counties and a separate population is found in and around the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron County. Ocelots are solitary and territorial cats that hunt mostly for rodents, rabbits, birds, and reptiles. They can live over 10 years in the wild and can typically have 1-2 kittens every few years.
Why are ocelots federally endangered?
Across its range, the ocelot faces threats from overexploitation and habitat loss. In the United States specifically, ocelots used to exist throughout Texas and in a few other southern states. Today, however, there are believed to be fewer than 100 resident breeding ocelots–all found in deep South Texas–because of historical habitat loss and overexploitation (through predator control activities like hunting, trapping, and poisoning). Ocelots remaining 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, one criterion is that there needs to be at least 200 ocelots in the wild in Texas for 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 restored and 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 aims to increase 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 their historical, but now unoccupied, range in Texas would increase the number of ocelots in the state, expand ocelots’ range in Texas, and spread out extinction risk for ocelots in Texas. Further, partners support the ocelot’s intrinsic existence and are committed to supporting their 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 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 impact on human safety. Ocelots are a predator species. However, they do not impact cattle or other livestock. Instead, in Texas, ocelots are known to consume a diet consisting of mostly of various species of mice, gophers, rats, rabbits, and passerine birds. Though the ocelots’ diet has been shown to include white-tailed deer, this is likely the result of scavenging of young dead deer, not hunting.
Where could we get ocelots for a reintroduced population?
There are too few ocelots remaining in Texas today to remove individuals from the existing populations and translocate them to Texas. Further, translocating wild ocelots from other countries directly into the reintroduction site is likely not warranted until it has been proven that ocelots can successfully live there. Rather, ocelots for the reintroduction will be sourced from a breeding program in an Ocelot Conservation Facility to be established in Kingsville, Texas. This Facility will propagate a genetically diverse, healthy, and behaviorally prepared source stock of ocelots for reintroduction.
What are the details of the breeding program?
When built, the Ocelot Conservation Facility will be populated with available zoo-based ocelots provided by Association of Zoos and Aquariums institutions, or others zoological institutions, and potentially with wild-born ocelots originating from other countries. It will be required that any potential source population of ocelots–in the wild or in captivity–can sustain the donation of individuals to the breeding program at the Ocelot Conservation Facility. Ocelots at this Facility will be bred naturally or with assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) such as artificial insemination. ARTs will allow the incorporation of genetic material collected from wild ocelots in Texas or other countries. Any ocelot released to the reintroduction site will be required to have at least 75% genetic makeup originating from the northern subspecies of ocelot (Leopardus pardalis pardalis) that is found in Texas, Mexico, and the rest of Central America. All ocelots with suitable genetic makeup will go through a behavioral preparation program before release to the wild where they will learn to hunt, socialize, move, and avoid humans–as they would naturally. Read more about plans for breeding ocelots, preparing them for the wild, and releasing them in the Manual for Ocelot Breeding and Reintroduction.
Where will the released ocelots come from?
Ocelots reintroduced to the San Antonio Viejo Ranch may be acquired from sources such as an ocelot breeding program to be established in South Texas. The breeding program will produce ocelots who are physically, genetically, and behaviorally suitable for reintroduction into the wild. More information about the breeding program can be found at RecoverTexasOcelots.org/resources.
When will the ocelot start getting released?
It will take several years from now to acquire ocelots for release to the reintroduction site. Parent ocelots need to be identified and successfully bred at the breeding facility in Kingsville, Texas. Depending on the genetic makeup of the offspring, additional generations may need to be bred before there are ocelots genetically eligible for release. From there, ocelot offspring need to reach over one year of age before they will be behaviorally ready to be released. It is a long process but one that is necessary to make sure that all released ocelots are suitable for life in the wild in South Texas.
Are there any risks for the released ocelots?
Ocelots face risks from possible vehicle collisions, predation, competition, and harsh environmental conditions at any location in the wild. The East Foundation will provide veterinary care to injured or ill ocelots after their release if possible. Despite the risks, it is expected that this Agreement will provide an overall benefit to the ocelot by establishing an ocelot population in the reintroduction area that would not otherwise occur there.
How will the ocelot reintroduction impact the existing ocelot populations in Texas?
Because the longest known distance an ocelot has ever dispersed is 50 kilometers and the existing ocelot populations in Texas are over 100 kilometers east of the San Antonio Viejo Ranch, ocelots in the existing population and the reintroduced population will not have any contact.
What is a 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to advance wildlife conservation efforts on private lands while also protecting the interests of landowners. Landowners who enter into a Safe Harbor Agreement agree to pursue activities to help conserve a listed species, and they are then assured that no land use restrictions nor additional conservation actions outside of the agreement will be placed on them by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This allows a private landowner to contribute to a threatened or endangered species' conservation without the concern of additional regulation. The Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement (SHA) for ocelot reintroduction, and an associated enhancement of survival permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, allows the East Foundation to reintroduce ocelots to its San Antonio Viejo Ranch while still maintaining their existing legal land uses. Landowners who sign up for the SHA will allow reintroduced ocelots to disperse to their properties and are also assured of no restrictions on their land uses. Even landowners who decide not to sign up for the SHA, but who are within 50 kilometers of the San Antonio Viejo Ranch, are assured by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that their normal land uses will not be restricted due to the presence of the reintroduced ocelots or their descendants.
How would the Agreement benefit ocelots?
The Agreement authorizes the reintroduction of a new ocelot population on private lands where ocelots do not occur. If successful, the reintroduction will support ocelot recovery from the Endangered Species Act by: increasing the number of ocelots, the amount of ocelot genetic diversity in the wild, and the area of occupied ocelot habitat in Texas. Creating an additional, geographically distinct ocelot population in Texas through reintroduction will also create a safeguard against the loss of ocelots in Texas in case of a catastrophic event – like a disease outbreak, fire, or tropical storm - impacting the small existing ocelot populations in Texas. Finally, monitoring and research activities associated with the reintroduction program will provide an important opportunity to expand knowledge of ocelot conservation in Texas.
Have other species been reintroduced to their former range in the United States?
Bald eagles, gray wolves, black-footed ferrets, and California condors are all species that have been subjects of reintroduction programs.
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.
Questions and Answers for landowners
Where is the ocelot reintroduction site and what is it like?
The ocelot reintroduction site is an approximately 470 square kilometer area of potential ocelot habitat encompassing the southern part of the East Foundation’s San Antonio Viejo Ranch and other nearby private lands (see map). The habitat exists within an area of remote working ranchlands, and it contains mostly Tamaulipan thornscrub composed of diverse brush species. The San Antonio Viejo Ranch itself is a working cattle ranch as well as an educational site and a laboratory for wildlife research. On the ranch, there are limited roads, human residents, and buildings, and around the ranch, there are no high-traffic highways, only smaller Farm-to-Market roads.
How many ocelots are currently at the San Antonio Viejo Ranch and surrounding area?
There are no ocelots currently at the San Antonio Viejo Ranch. The only known ocelot locations in Texas are within existing populations along the coast in Cameron, Willacy, Kenedy, and Kleberg Counties. We know this from camera trapping studies conducted around Texas by the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute (CKWRI). Ocelots historically were found in many areas around Texas, but their population declined because of habitat loss and overharvest.
What does this Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement for Ocelot Reintroduction mean for an individual who owns private land around the ocelot reintroduction site?
The Agreement was specifically designed to assure private landowners that no land-use restrictions would be placed on them due to either their participation in the Safe Harbor Agreement or the overall ocelot reintroduction program.
Who can sign up to participate in the Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement?
Any landowners in Zapata, Jim Hogg, Starr, Brooks, and Hidalgo Counties that are west of Highway 281 can participate in the Agreement by obtaining a Certificate of Inclusion from the East Foundation.
What are participating landowners asked to do if they participate in the Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement?
Participating landowners will allow ocelots released on the East Foundation’s San Antonio Viejo Ranch, and their descendants, to disperse to the habitat available on their lands. They will also allow the East Foundation - or designees from Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute or Texas Parks and Wildlife Department - to access their property to retrieve ocelot radio collars, to provide veterinary care to injured or ill ocelots, and to conduct necropsies on any deceased ocelots. Participating landowners are asked to notify the East Foundation prior to major land use conversions and before nonselective predator control efforts so that the East Foundation may consider whether it is necessary to rescue ocelots prior to the use of such activities that could directly threaten ocelots. Participating landowners will communicate with the East Foundation at least once a year about their participation in the Agreement.
What else can landowners do to support ocelot reintroduction?
Additional actions could include expanding ocelot monitoring efforts (such as with camera trapping or monitoring of dens with kittens), supporting other research related to ocelots and their habitat, or managing habitat for ocelots (including restoring thornscrub habitat or installing supplement water sources). These actions are encouraged, but not required, and can be implemented with assistance from the East Foundation, CKWRI, or TPWD.
Will or can ocelots be released directly on my property?
The only site currently planned for the direct release of ocelots is the East Foundation’s San Antonio Viejo Ranch. Ocelot releases will occur using soft release methods, which require the construction of facilities plus maintenance and monitoring of ocelots in those facilities for approximately two weeks before full release. It is expected that at the end of this two-week acclimatization period, ocelots will disperse into available habitat across the San Antonio Viejo Ranch and on other properties. No other landowners are required to release ocelots on their properties, and all releases will occur at the San Antonio Viejo Ranch. Should the San Antonio Viejo Ranch reach capacity for ocelot occupancy and should there still be available ocelots to release, it could be possible to release ocelots on other nearby properties.
Do landowners have to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or other federal government agencies to participate in the Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement for ocelot reintroduction?
No, landowners do not have to engage with the USFWS or other federal government to participate. The East Foundation will coordinate all landowner participation in the Agreement. Additionally, if they wish, landowners can choose to be anonymous (to both the USFWS and the public) regarding their participation in the program and the presence of any ocelots on their lands.
How do the ocelot reintroduction and the Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement impact landowners who do not want to participate in the Agreement?
Landowners who are not participating in the Agreement and who are within 50 kilometers (31 miles) of ocelot release locations on the East Foundation’s San Antonio Viejo Ranch will not have any land use restrictions or other regulations placed on them related to ocelots who disperse from the San Antonio Viejo Ranch.
Is there a process landowners must go through if ocelots are found on their property? What happens if I find an ocelot on my property?
Private landowners are not required to notify the East Foundation of ocelot presence, though they may if they wish. If there is information showing that an ill, injured, or deceased ocelot is on a property, landowners are asked to contact the East Foundation and allow the East Foundation to access the property to provide veterinary care for ill or injured ocelots or to retrieve carcasses.
What if a landowner does not want an ocelot on their property?
While ocelots are not expected to impede any typical land use activities in South Texas, any landowners, whether participating in the Agreement or not, may at any time request that the East Foundation remove an ocelot from their property. While removal of all ocelots from a landowner’s property cannot be guaranteed, the East Foundation (with the cooperation of designees as necessary) will attempt to capture and remove ocelots where requested using appropriate capture techniques. Removed ocelots may be relocated to other areas in the reintroduction area, or to the Ocelot Conservation Facility.
What about landowner privacy?
No property-specific data regarding landowner participation in the Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement and the presence and behaviors of ocelots on specific properties will be disclosed to the public or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service without landowner permission. When signing up for the Agreement, landowners should also sign up for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Private Lands Assistance and Technical Guidance program and elect whether information about the specific location of private property and any ocelot presence there may be publicly disclosed or must be kept private.
What if a landowner who signed up for the Agreement sells their property?
The East Foundation will contact the new owner and invite them to participate in the Agreement, but the buyer is free to choose whether they would like to participate or not.
How long will this Agreement last, and do landowners have to commit to participate the entire time?
The Agreement, if approved, will be for a term of 30 years, with the possibility for renewal by the East Foundation and the USFWS at the end of the term. Other interested landowners are welcome to join the Agreement via a Certificate of Inclusion at any time during the Agreement. Landowners may also withdraw from the Agreement at the end of the 30-year period or at any time during the term of the Agreement if they wish.
How would participating in the Safe Harbor Agreement impact landowners’ participation in other state or federal programs (e.g., NRCS or TWPD programs) on their lands?
Landowners may still participate in any other state or federal land management or incentive program regardless of whether they participate in the Safe Harbor Agreement. Since there are no land use restrictions placed upon landowners due to ocelot reintroduction or the Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement, they may conduct any other land uses consistent with participating in such programs. Participating landowners may provide information to other program administrators about their participation in the reintroduction Safe Harbor as part of their application process if desired.
What considerations are there for landowners who conduct hunting on their properties?
Under the Safe Harbor Agreement, landowners can continue all their normal land use activities, including hunting, despite the ocelot reintroduction. However, direct take (i.e., shooting) of an ocelot, whether intentional or due to species misidentification, by a landowner or other hunter on the property is not permitted. This direct take of an ocelot would still be considered a violation of the Endangered Species Act on the part of the individual responsible, though the landowner would not be liable if they were not the hunter. Landowners should communicate with any hunters about the potential presence of ocelots, as well as the ways to distinguish them from bobcats, to avoid any direct take of an ocelot.
What about predator-trapping efforts?
Participating landowners in the Safe Harbor Agreement should provide at least one week of notice to the East Foundation before implementing any nonselective and potentially lethal predator control activities that could directly kill or injure ocelots. The East Foundation will determine, based on analysis of the activities and known ocelot locations, if it is necessary to attempt to capture and remove any ocelots from the property before the activity to reduce the risk of ocelot injury or death. Alternatively, East Foundation may require the Participating Landowner to check daily for ocelots during the predator control activity or check every other day and provide freshwater at any predator traps.
How does a landowner sign up?
After a Safe Harbor is approved by the USFWS, eligible landowners interested in participating in the program can sign up for the program by obtaining a Certificate of Inclusion from the East Foundation.
Why should a landowner sign up for the Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement?
Participating in the Safe Harbor Agreement provides landowners with the opportunity to contribute to the conservation of ocelots while also assuring themselves that Endangered Species Act regulations related to ocelots will not restrict their freedom to operate.
Questions and Answers about East Foundation's involvement
Why is the East Foundation involved and working with USFWS on this project?
Through its commitment to being a good land steward and protecting ocelot habitat and the most known individual ocelots in the United States, the East Foundation is demonstrating at El Sauz Ranch in Willacy County that ocelot conservation and research is compatible with ranching operations on private lands in South Texas. By involving itself in ocelot reintroduction on the San Antonio Viejo Ranch in Jim Hogg and Starr Counties, the East Foundation will not only help ocelots recover from endangered status but will also continue to lead the way forward in stewardship of protected species on private lands. The USFWS is the regulatory agency responsible for protecting endangered species like the ocelot. By working closely with the USFWS to create the Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement for Ocelot Reintroduction, the East Foundation has created assurances for both itself and other landowners that the ocelot reintroduction will not lead to USFWS restrictions on land uses.
What is the East Foundation going to do for ocelots?
The East Foundation will, over time, release ocelots to its San Antonio Viejo Ranch and allow those ocelots to establish a population on available habitat on the Ranch and surrounding lands. The East Foundation will monitor the fate of all released ocelots to evaluate ways to further support ocelot population establishment.
How will the East Foundation monitor the reintroduction program?
The East Foundation will place tracking devices (e.g., collars) on all released ocelots to monitor their survival, movements, and reproduction.