CORPUS CHRISTI — KINGSVILLE — As fewer than 100 ocelots fight each other over the last virgin acres of South Texas brush country, conservationists wage their own battle to tell the story of the wild cats and why their survival matters even though the cats are seldom seen.
“The more wildlife we lose, the more it means we have a less healthy ecosystem out there,” said Michael Tewes, a researcher and wild cat specialist at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.
Tewes and other wildlife biologists and conservationists are celebrating 10 years and $30 million in awards from State Wildlife Grants, a federal program that focuses funding on species that aren’t hunted or fished. They held a briefing Wednesday at A&M-Kingsville to tout benefits of the program.
Even as they celebrate, they hope to convince policymakers to establish a permanent source of funding like the taxes on hunting and fishing licenses that support game species. Ninety-seven percent of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s wildlife division budget is funded by hunting, while State Wildlife Grants make up the remaining 3 percent, said John Young, a Parks and Wildlife scientist who studies mammals.
“This little bit of money we get from State Wildlife Grants does so much for us, so it’s important to let the legislators know,” Young said.
Connecting the reclusive ocelot — similar in appearance to a house cat but with larger paws and a leopard-like fur pattern — with the overall health of the environment is a challenge for conservationists. Two decades ago, the ocelot had all but disappeared from the land and language of South Texas.
Officials said saving the creature will involve a delicate web of conservation activities that span from Mexico and South Texas to Washington, strengthening partnerships between researchers, landowners, the government and nonprofit groups.
Tewes said skull specimens show today’s ocelot population is less genetically diverse than in the past.
“It tells us we need more ocelots, and to have more ocelots we need more habitat,” he said.
Decades of ranching and highway construction shredded the area’s dense brushy thickets until only a patchwork was left — a hundred acres here, a few hundred there. Already suffering from fur trapping, the ocelot range that once spread from central Mexico into Texas and Arizona became fragmented. Genetic diversity among ocelots in South Texas plummeted, making them more vulnerable to diseases and birth defects.
The federal grants support projects across the state, including Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists who work with private landowners to advise them on ways to protect habitat. At the same time, they forge relationships with the landowners that can assuage fears of government interference. The result, officials said, is more landowners willing to set aside land for conservation easements, in which the land is protected from brush clearing and development.
“Private landowners are the cornerstone of maintaining biological diversity in South Texas,” Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist Jesus Franco said.
Frank Yturria of Brownsville has established about 2,000 acres of easements on his ranches. Wildlife officials hope to string together more easements to reach the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge about 20 miles away, where another small group of ocelots resides. Ocelots already use this corridor, but it could disappear to private development, Tewes said. The hope is that ocelots eventually will be able to range freely from Mexico into the southern United States, he said.