A Different Beneficiary of the Recovery Act: ARRA Funding Improves Endangered Cat’s Chances

By: Clay Harris, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Clay_Harris@fws.gov

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The endangered Ocelot, a small cat found almost exclusively at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

The “lomas” or clay hills of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) have been home to some of America’s treasures for thousands of years. However, in the last 75 years, an estimated 95 percent of the habitat in the lower Rio Grande Valley, vital to the highly endangered ocelot and other species that rely on lomas, has been decimated. But thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act) and the hard work of Laguna Atascosa’s staff, the ocelots that call the refuge home will have more lomas to roam in the near future.

Four years ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) began the process of turning these clay hills on the refuge into something more than just silt covered mounds in between saltwater basins. The Service began the process of digging channels to restore water flow between the large basins that make up Laguna Atascosa’s wetlands. With those channels built, the ecosystem is returning to its natural state. Progress is being made as the Recovery Act awards $681,000 to build two 80-to-85 foot bridges across two of the three new channels.

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This picture shows the Bahia Grande Wetland Complex restored through the excavation of four Refuge channels.

“This Recovery Act funded project is critical to the management of this beautiful and diverse ecosystem and will allow us to continue our award-winning habitat restoration,” said Laguna Atascosa Refuge Manager Sonny Perez. “With regards to the ocelot, every acre protected and restored is a big step toward helping this highly endangered species. This project is critical to the battle to preserve this unique American treasure.”

The Bahia Grande Tract of Laguna Atascosa NWR is approximately 23,000 acres, of which 40 percent is upland habitat (lomas and expansive chordgrass flats). Before construction of the new channels helped restore more than 10,000 acres of wetlands, winds blew across the upland terrains and covered everything in silt. This layer of silt not only affected adjacent communities and caused public health and safety concerns, it was killing native vegetation. Unfortunately the newly-constructed channels and water flow cut-off access to the upland terrains.

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Oscelot Esperanza with kitten.

The new bridges will allow heavy equipment access and greater mobility on the large tract. Staff will be able to access the upland terrain and create more habitat for the ocelot. The lomas will again be able to support the dense thornscrub vegetation, open chordgrass flats and intermittent yucca stands that ocelots call home. Not only will the new habitat help the ocelot flourish, it will additionally benefit other endangered species, including the northern Aplomado falcon.

South Texas constitutes the last stronghold in the United States for the ocelot, a small cat species that once roamed from the most southern tip of Texas up into Arkansas and Louisiana. Laguna Atascosa NWR is home to one of two known breeding populations with the other population found in the great Texas ranchlands to the north.

Biologists estimate that ocelots have been reduced to less than 50 animals in the United States, primarily due to loss of habitat. Restoring and protecting existing habitat is crucial because as an ocelot begins to mature it must leave its parents and go out in search of its own territory. These young cats must cross many highways in search of new territories, a very dangerous time in an ocelot’s life. Nearly half of the ocelots studied by the Laguna Atascosa NWR were hit by vehicles.

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Bayside Drive and view of the Laguna Madre in the distance.

While the project will fund between five and 10 jobs throughout build, the Recovery Act is also making an investment in conserving America’s timeless treasures – our stunning natural landscapes, our monuments to liberty, the icons of our culture and heritage. And no project exemplifies that goal more than the bridge-build at Laguna Atascosa NWR.

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Originally posted 01/25/2010

DOI Recovery Investments by Bureau

Last Updated: February 02, 2012
Content contact: recovery@ios.doi.gov