Plan Endorses Protection for Elusive Ocelot

Tony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star | Posted: Thursday, September 2, 2010 12:00 am

The U.S. should help the ocelot in Arizona and northern Mexico by protecting its best habitat and movement corridors, identifying major threats, and researching the cat’s habitat needs, a new federal recovery plan says.

But the endangered cat could get help in this state from another human source – global warming over the next several decades, biologists familiar with the animal say.

The new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan proposes spending about $60 million over at least the next six years to help out the ocelot in Arizona and Sonora and in the border region of south Texas. There, ocelots have had breeding populations, although their numbers are down to fewer than 25 today.

Authorities have confirmed records of only two ocelots in Arizona since 1964 – both in the past year.

Global warming could draw ocelots from northern Mexico, where they are much more common, according to cat experts from the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University and the Sky Island Alliance, a Tucson conservation group. It’s important to make this area hospitable to ocelots so they’ll thrive under such conditions, they said.

“I think the chances are better than even that ocelots will expand into the U.S,” said Paul Beier, an NAU wildlife ecology professor who sat on an expert team that worked with the service in preparing the recovery plan. “But are we talking about the next 30 or 50 or 10 years? I really don’t know the answer. We are exceeding the most pessimistic projections for emissions of greenhouse gases,” Beier said. “We’re cranking it out, and the world is doing absolutely nothing to slow down that process. It will cause changes in the distribution of animals.”

There is a possibility that ocelots have always been in Arizona in very low numbers, simply because it’s so easy for rare animals to go undetected, said Melanie Culver, a U.S. Geological Survey geneticist who also worked on the recovery team. It’s possible that the population will move north with climate change, said Culver, assistant leader of the Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Arizona.

The recovery plan is less optimistic, warning that drought and wildfires triggered by climate change could make the cats more vulnerable. “It’s hard to predict right now with what is going to happen with climate change,” said Brady McGee, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Albuquerque. “The ocelot likes very dense and thick vegetation. If the temperature is going to increase in the Southwest, a lot of climatic models show it drying out as well.”

Efforts to help ocelots also must consider the wall and fences that now mark much of the Arizona-Sonora border, the ocelot experts say. A part of that fencing – it’s not clear how much – will prevent ocelots and many other animals from entering this country, although other parts could be open to the ocelots, experts said.

The Wildlife Service’s McGee agreed that the border fence is a barrier to ocelots. He said the recovery plan addresses that issue to a limited extent – “maybe as much as we can at this time.”

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746.

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