There is perhaps no better wildlife topic at the moment for us in South Texas than conservation of one of the most unique and charismatic species in Texas and maybe the United States: the ocelot. Many Texans are unaware that the only population of ocelots in this country occurs right in their own back yard. Yes, the only breeding population of ocelots left within the United States exists primarily in Cameron and Willacy Counties, and that’s something South Texans should be proud of.
South Texans also might not be aware that this may be the last chance we’ll have to save the ocelot in the United States. The ocelot is one of our neighbors, yet we humans continue to threaten the cat’s survival. The ocelot has several natural threats, like disease, predators and competition from other species. Yet, we make the situation worse when we construct poorly planned and designed roads, which lead to ocelots and other wildlife getting hit by vehicles. In addition to life-threatening roads, this fast growing area that we call home is quickly being carved up by urban sprawl (rather than smart development). This fragmentation of the landscape makes it nearly impossibly for the ocelot to move from one natural island of brush to another, in effect cutting the cats off from one another.
You may wonder what the concern is all about. When I first moved to South Texas, I thought there was plenty of habitat here. However, the concern with the survival of ocelots and other wildlife is that, although some open space currently exists, it is disappearing quickly. Once the habitat is gone, the species will be gone — forever. For now, there’s still hope for the ocelot in South Texas. This area has been called “The Last Great Habitat“ because there still is a great deal of green space all around us — particularly in the form of the huge private ranches like the King, Kennedy and Yturria, among others — as well as public lands that focus on habitat conservation.
The Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, where one of the two remaining populations of ocelots still occurs, is the southern gateway to this great habitat. If we act now, we have a real opportunity to preserve that connection to the wild ranches, so our children can experience the “wild South Texas“ we now enjoy. This opportunity to preserve our wild heritage won’t happen automatically. Ultimately, it is the people of South Texas who will decide what they want: miles of pavement, or miles of green space intermixed with smart development. I, for one, choose green space with smart development.
Boyd Blihovde works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as refuge manager of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
Boyd Blihovde Special to the Star