November 21, 2010 9:33 PM
The Valley Morning Star
HARLINGEN — Trapping season for ocelots has begun at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and there is reason for optimism.
“We’re hoping to find some new cats,” Jody Mays, refuge biologist in charge of the refuge’s ocelot program, said.
About 15 to 20 traps were set recently in hopes of catching ocelots. Information gathered from captured ocelots will go a long way in determining the general health and size of their population, Mays said.
Last spring, the number of ocelots living in the United States was officially reduced from less than 100 to less than 50.
About 25 of the endangered felines live at Laguna Atascosa or adjacent land. The remaining population lives in Willacy and Kenedy counties.
“We have some trip cameras put out in different areas and a couple of individuals were photographed by the cameras,” Mays said.
“It looks as if we may have one to three extra females,” she said.
These females would be cats not previously documented.
“We want to see where they are living and if they have kittens,” Mays said.
She said that if new ocelots are found living close to the refuge, inquiries might be made about buying land to protect them.
Abundant rainfall from Hurricane Alex, Tropical Depression No. 2 and Tropical Storm Hermine have filled many refuge ponds and waterholes.
“There is a solid prey base now,” Mays said. “I’m optimistic about conditions at the refuge and we might see more trapped than the six last year. More would be great, but six would be acceptable.”
Mays said the traps are baited and checked early in the morning.
“If we catch an ocelot, we put it under anesthesia, then we give it a physical and look at the health of the animal to see if it has any injuries,” she said.
A passive integrated responder is placed between the shoulder blades if there is not one already in place.
Mays describes the PIT as similar to a bar code “to give the animal a unique ID.” Reading the PIT provides information about the cat, such as when it was last captured. Measurements that include the animal’s weight are taken of the cats.
Next, a radio-tracking collar is placed on the ocelot, which helps biologists monitor its movements. The collar’s battery lasts about a year and eventually the collar will fall off.
“Once we put a radio-tracking collar on, then that’s basically it,” she said. “We then release the cat where it was caught and we’re able to track it without affecting its movements.
“We can find out where it’s moving and when it’s moving and put that on a map,” she said.
Trapping is done in cooler months, ending in the spring.
This trapping season, Mays said, “we’re going to be looking to see if there are any young cats out there and how many females and how many males there are.
“We also want to find out if the cats have any kinds of diseases we don’t know about,” she said.
Even though the traps are meant for ocelots, other critters don’t know that.
Mays said the traps have also caught raccoons, possums, skunks (“once in a blue moon, thank goodness”), hawks, rats, coyotes, bobcats, javelinas, a rattlesnake, an alligator, chachcalacas, green jays, rabbits and indigo snakes.
“We just let them go,” Mays said of the unintended wildlife.
Steve Sinclair is a reporter with the Valley Morning Star in Harlingen.