In Texas, wildlife conservation is far from a simple equation. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, over 93 percent of the state is privately owned, including vital habitats for big cats. Balancing protection measures with the desires of landowners requires a deft hand.
Still, one San Antonio nonprofit is hoping it has found the right formula for ocelot recovery. The East Foundation, a local ranching operation and agricultural research organization, is proposing the Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, to support reintroducing species into the wild. A 30-day public comment period began September 15.
Following the proposal, the East Foundation will release ocelots onto a section of its San Antonio Viejo Ranch in Jim Hogg and Starr Counties — an area marked as unoccupied ocelot habitat. Landowners in neighboring counties can voluntarily sign up to allow the cats passage on their acres, exempting them from future conservation activities.
Working with the Recover Texas Ocelots project, East Foundation has assembled large amounts of data on ocelots, ranging from prey habits to behavior with other carnivores. This research informed the organization's conservation strategy.
The need for protection is dire. The distinctively spotted wild cats have been officially listed as endangered since 1982. The state's sole breeding populations live in far South Texas, where much land is devoted to ranching.
"The largest population of ocelots remaining in Texas (and, by extension, the United States) occupies East Foundation ranch land in Willacy County," explains Dr. Jason Sawyer, Chief Science Officer for the East Foundation, via a release. Several estimates place that population between 50 and 100.
"So, we have demonstrated that good land stewardship associated with normal ranching activities is not in conflict with ocelot recovery," he continued, "and we want to continue ranching operations while also providing an opportunity to expand these populations."
Plan details and other conservation efforts can be found online. Comments will be accepted through October 16, with full specifics available at the Federal Register.
"The assurances provided in the Agreement offer a path for lasting and effective partnerships that accomplish conservation goals while removing the barriers that have historically impeded these efforts," said Neal Wilkins, Chief Executive Officer for the East Foundation. "We are excited to lead an effort like this in South Texas, where we successfully operate, and where wildlife conservation and ranching have been vitally important for more than 100 years."
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