Merry Christmas to ocelots: New hope for endangered cats thanks to Texas rancher
RAYMONDVILLE, Texas — Few things would venture into the dense thorny scrub favored by the endangered ocelot. But with little of south Texas considered suitable habitat for the remaining 50 or fewer rare cats, the ocelots remain vulnerable.
The Nature Conservancy hopes to give 1,300 acres more of that forbidding thicket of mesquite, huisache and other shrubs to the spotted cats with a conservation easement it bought from south Texas rancher Frank Yturria on Tuesday.
Yturria, 86, spent much of his life fighting back such scrub on the thousands of acres of open grasslands where his cattle graze, but decades ago stopped clearing some of those areas when he realized ocelots live there.
This week he and his wife, Mary, went a step further to protect ocelot habitat, selling the easement on their San Francisco Ranch. The swath of land, less than 15 miles inland from the Laguna Madre, straddles Willacy and Kenedy counties. It is adjacent to three easements Yturria already has made for the ocelot and more than doubles the amount of land he has set aside.
The San Francisco Ranch easements are part of one of only two documented ocelot breeding grounds in the country. The other is at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, about 25 miles to the south.
"I hope that 50 years from now ... those little cats will have a place that is theirs," Yturria said Monday at the ranch. "The worst destructive element this Earth has is man."
Ocelots are about twice the size of a house cat and also are found in Central and South America. The conservancy says on its website that it is the rarest cat in America, having been hunted for its distinctive yellow and black spotted fur. Loss of habitat and collisions with automobiles also have been blamed for the declining population.
A male ocelot, and two or three females traveling with it, ideally would have about 1,200 acres of habitat, said Sonia Najera, the conservancy's south Texas program manager.
Much of south Texas has been cleared for farming and ranching over the years. Now some landowners have started dotting their pastures with large wind turbines, but the Yturria land covered by the easement will be preserved in perpetuity.
"I want to be sure when I'm gone my heirs won't consider things like that [wind turbines]," Yturria said, as he bounced across the land in his truck pointing out deer, wild turkeys and exotic species like the nilgai, a horse-sized antelope from India. "It's all about leaving this like it is."
The new easement encompasses sandy hills with live oak and ephemeral wetlands as well as the thorny scrub for ocelots.
The Nature Conservancy hopes other landowners will consider similar arrangements. Yturria says he sold the easement at a bargain price and will claim the difference between the selling price and the appraised value as a charitable donation. Neither the conservancy nor Yturria would disclose the costs.
Conservationists hope to preserve a corridor connecting the San Francisco Ranch and the other breeding ground at Laguna Atascosa so the two groups of cats can interact and avoid inbreeding.
Study of ocelot DNA in the two locations has found no evidence of interaction, Najera said.
Last winter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documented 11 ocelots on the ranch's existing conservation easements.
Most of the easement's cost was paid with a grant from the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, a federal source. Additional money came from the Robert J. Kleberg Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation and the El Paso Corp.
Fish and Wildlife will manage the land in partnership with the conservancy.
-- Associated Press
Photo: An ocelot at the Feline Conservation Center in Rosamond, Calif. Credit: Nancy Vandermey