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Texas ocelots may get boost from breeding, environmental protection program

Robin Gwen Agarwal
/
via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

There are probably no more than 100 ocelots in Texas these days.

The little wild cats used used to be fairly common, but habitat loss and overhunting drove them to the brink of extinction in South Texas.

There is a plan to hopefully reverse that trend, however. A group of government agencies and conservation nonprofits have come together to develop a program that would bolster the ocelot’s population in Texas.

Lisanne Petracca, assistant professor of carnivore ecology at the Texas A&M University-Kingsville, spoke to the Texas Standard about the project.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: First, can you describe the kind of environment that an ocelot needs to survive? 

Lisanne Petracca: So the kind of habitat that ocelots really, really like is this dense Tamaulipan thornscrub, which is characteristic of where we are here in South Texas. And so they like some dense scrub cover. They like proximity to water and, of course, having an adequate prey base.

And in general terms, what is the plan to boost their population in South Texas? Can you talk me through some of the key points?

Things are getting really exciting down here in the Kingsville area. It is believed that ocelots are on the decline here. And though we don’t exactly know how many ocelots are left, there may be as few as 100, or fewer.

And so something that we are moving forward with now is a reintroduction project. So this reintroduction would source essentially second-generation individuals raised in a captive breeding facility and then release those into this third wild population, also in South Texas. And this third population, the area that was chosen, it’s away from high-traffic roads; it’s away from storm surge areas, such that if something catastrophic were to happen in the two current populations, this one would remain intact.

So we’re currently building a captive breeding facility here at Texas A&M-Kingsville, with support from our project partners. And so the idea is to propagate individuals using semen from wild males so that they are, you know, South Texan genetically. And at the second generation, they’re now 75% South Texan, at which point those individuals would be released into that third population.

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So are you able, with this method, to get enough genetic diversity to make sure that the population is healthy moving forward?

Yeah, great question. So the key thing is that we will be using semen from wild males. So we’re keeping that Texan genetic stock. But for the females we’ll be using zoo females, which of course have broad genetic diversity and perhaps sourcing individuals from Mexico as well, which we know has higher genetic diversity than currently in South Texas.

So we’re hoping that by mixing the Texan genetic stock – because the ocelots here are adapted very well to this environment – and then by mixing with zoo females in an artificial insemination procedure, that we can effectively bolster that genetic health in the population.

Can you tell me a little bit more about where these ocelots are going to go? You mentioned that this is an area that is away from development. Can you give me some more details about where it is and how it came about that it’s going to be used for this purpose?

To back up for one second: There are two populations currently in South Texas. One of them is at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge; we call that the refuge population. The other population is called the ranch population, and that is in Willacy County. And that overlaps with some East Foundation property called El Sauz and other adjoining ranches. So that’s where we know ocelots to be. The genetic health of the population at Laguna Atascosa is the poorest of the two.

And so this third site will be based still in South Texas, but further west, overlapping with another East Foundation property in and around San AntonioViejo Ranch. And that site was chosen as a result of a pretty complex kind of geospatial analysis where it was essentially, you know, where is intact Tamaulipan thornscrub in South Texas? What are the size of those patches? What does that fragmentation look like?

And then you have to look at proximity to roads, you know, distance from storm surges and also just having land ownership that would be amenable to having essentially an endangered felid on the property. We’re still a couple of years off from actually seeing that reintroduction, but at least we have a site chosen and we have some great collaborations on the ground to get that going.

Well, this region that we’re talking about, you know, even though you have this set aside of land where these cats can go, nonetheless, South Texas is still industrializing pretty rapidly. There’s SpaceX; there are liquefied natural gas facilities slated to be constructed. Do you have concerns about the effects that continued development could have on this project?

I think that it would be wise to say that that’s something we keep in mind for all wildlife habitat here in South Texas. I don’t think that that area is any exception.

However, what we do know is that essentially, you know, the property that overlaps East Foundation land that is currently the size of the El Sauz Ranch that they have, which already has a very healthy ocelot population. So I think we can have some sense of security that a pretty sizable part of that area will have amenable land ownership in the near future. And the adjoining properties are privately owned. Things may change, but we need to be hopeful for the future.

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