Texas Builds a Wildlife Highway to Help Endangered Ocelots Survive
Back in the fall of 2014, I took a whack at the Texas Department of Transportation for treating the nation’s only viable population of endangered ocelots—beautiful spotted cats about twice the size of a house cat—as fodder for roadkill. The department had flagrantly disregarded recommendations from wildlife experts on the critical need for safe road crossings, instead installing an impassable concrete barrier down the center of a busy highway bordering a national wildlife refuge.
TxDot, as it’s known, responded with a note suggesting that it was hurt, deeply hurt, by my suggestion that it was anything less than acutely sensitive to the needs of wildlife. But it would cost $1 million apiece for crossings in the area of that concrete barrier. Not that anyone was counting. They had only asked whether it was worth spending that kind of money on a species nearing extinction in this country so they could “learn and understand the historical dynamics of wildlife survival.” This was at a time when the relevant dynamic was that highway accidents were causing 40 percent of all ocelot deaths.
But occasionally good things happen, even in the unlikeliest places. So I am delighted to report that TxDot is now doing something to protect ocelots in their last remaining patch of habitat. (It may have helped that you and readers of other articles about the plight of the ocelots let your feelings be known, so thank you for that.) The state last month began installation of a dozen wildlife underpasses in and around the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, a 98,000-acre coastal habitat near Brownsville, at the mouth of the Rio Grande.
Four of them, spaced at half-mile intervals, will help ocelots get around (or under) that concrete divider on Highway 100, which runs south of Laguna Atascosa and carries heavy vacation traffic to South Padre Island. Another eight are already being put into place on FM106, which may sound like a radio station but is actually a farm-to-market road that borders and runs through Laguna Atascosa. The work there will cost just $1 million, because the tunnels are part of an overall upgrading of the road; the retrofit on Highway 100 will cost $5 million.
The work is happening at a critical moment for the ocelots. Fewer than 100 of them survive in and around the refuge, and seven have died in road accidents since last June. “We were devastated, since almost a year had passed with no reports of ocelots hit by cars,” said Hilary Swarts, a wildlife biologist who monitors the ocelots for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. That first death took out an adult female, a major loss because females are the limiting factor in population growth. “Males can go impregnate multiple females in a relatively short time, but females have to gestate and lactate,” said Swarts. “Basically a female, from the second she gets pregnant, you’re talking about two years before she’s ready to have another offspring.”
Each gender has its little hell. The other six highway victims were males, not surprisingly, said Swarts, “since they have such a rough time of it once the older males start to see the younger males as competition for mates and territory.” The younger males typically get pushed out of the dense, brushy habitat where they grew up and into the increasingly developed outside world with its deadly highways.
While the progress on wildlife crossings is good news, it may not be enough to protect the ocelots adequately. Three of the recent deaths took place on a road called Highway 186, about five miles north of the refuge, where wildlife crossings are under discussion but are not actually being built. Last fall TxDot posted signs saying “Wildlife Crossing—Next Two Miles,” but it doesn’t appear to have helped: Another male died there just last month.
In addition to the new wildlife crossings, the refuge is working with neighboring landowners to establish permanent wildlife corridors for ocelots and other species in the area. Private landowners already have more of the ocelots than does the refuge itself, said Laguna Atascosa manager Boyd Blihovde. “Many times ranchers that are interested in hunting, even though they have crops or cattle on the property, will want to preserve native vegetation,” he said, including the thorn scrub vegetation that ocelots require. “My goal as a refuge manager is to help ranchers continue doing what they’re doing, owning and protecting the land, and maintaining a working ranch so they don’t feel the need to sell it off to developers.”
Subdivisions are almost as deadly as highways for the ocelots. Blihovde said the recent settlement in the BP Deepwater Horizon case will help that cause, with new funding available for ranchers to enter into conservation easements that will keep them on the land while protecting the conservation value of the property in perpetuity.
Meanwhile, two-and-a-half cheers for TxDot for getting the highway ocelot crossings started. And three cheers for those rare sensible people among us who drive a little bit slower than they might like, not just around Laguna Atascosa but anywhere with enough room for wildlife to thrive. I was driving on the coast of Maine the other day—yes, a little over the speed limit—and I had a sick feeling when a chipmunk bolted out in front and went thump under the left rear wheel. And that was just a lousy chipmunk. You don’t want to know what it must feel like to kill an endangered ocelot.