Wildlife

A Shocking Surge of Ocelot Deaths in Texas

Male ocelot killed by a vehicle on Highway 77 in Kenedy County, TX, January 17, 2016. Photo © US Fish and Wildlife Service

The past year has been a harsh one for Texas ocelots, with seven of the spotted cats killed on roads, according to a release issued yesterday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

The population of Texas ocelots hovers, at best, in the dozens, so every cat counts. The loss of even one on the roads is devastating news for conservationists.

Two years ago, I reported on the ocelot situation in south Texas. I spent a day with USFWS biologist Hilary Swarts at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, the heart of Texas ocelot range. She showed me her methods for capturing and tracking ocelots to better understand their movements. I also spent time with private ranchers working with The Nature Conservancy to protect ocelot habitat.

I left that trip inspired by passionate researchers and conservationists doing everything they could to save this spectacular animal. But I also felt saddened by the array of problems faced by ocelots, from the border wall and associated issues to growing cities to habitat loss. And roads.

Roads represented one of the biggest threats to wildlife, particularly since one highway sliced right through prime habitat.

In fact, soon after I published my stories in July 2014, Swarts contacted me with the news that another ocelot had been killed on the highway, a saddening loss.

It got worse.

A Deadly Year

Following that death, more than 11 months went by without a death. Then, in June 2015, a female was found dead near a road and was confirmed killed by a vehicle.

“Of course we were devastated, since almost a year had passed with no reports of ocelots hit by cars. Also, it’s especially harmful to the population when a female is killed, since it is the female rate of reproduction that helps the population grow,” said Swarts in the press release.

Since then, six more ocelots have been killed on the roads.

Locations of known ocelot deaths by vehicle from June 2015 through April, 2016. Photo © US Fish and Wildlife Service
Locations of known ocelot deaths by vehicle from June 2015 through April, 2016. Photo © US Fish and Wildlife Service

An effort to educate motorists about ocelot crossings, including improved signs, has not stopped the deaths.

With a small, isolated population of mammals, these highway deaths could prove a disastrous blow to the population. Is there a way to get ocelots over increasingly busy roads? Yes, according to the USFWS.

As the release states: “This terrible run of ocelot road mortalities emphasizes the crucial need for wildlife crossings to allow ocelots and other wildlife to pass under roads to avoid vehicles.”

How Does the Ocelot Cross The Road?

Fortunately, wildlife crossings are already under construction. The first are being built on FM106, a road that borders and runs through Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. While none of the ocelots killed in the past year died on this road, they do cross it. The road is being improved which will lead to faster vehicle traffic, requiring a better way to get the animals safely across it. The road will feature fencing that funnels ocelots and other wildlife to underpasses that allow safe passage to the other side of the road.

As Swarts notes in the press release: “This is new terrain for us, since wildlife crossings have not really been built in ocelot habitat before. It will be very interesting to see what our wildlife crossing monitoring program reveals about when and how ocelots and other wildlife use the newly installed crossings.”

Construction of an under the road wildlife crossing on FM106 in Cameron County, TX. Photo © US Fish and Wildlife Service
Construction of an under the road wildlife crossing on FM106 in Cameron County, TX. Photo © US Fish and Wildlife Service

According to USFWS, the Texas Department of Transportation will also begin installing a series of four ocelot crossings this summer on State Highway 100: the site of five known ocelot mortalities.

Protecting and restoring habitat corridors in south Texas, including partnerships with private lands, will also be important for ocelot survival.

Roads are of course a reality across North America and around the globe. Increasingly, conservationists are seeking ways to allow wildlife to migrate and move across roads — improving safety for animals and people.

While the past year has been a horrible one for Texas ocelots, these new wildlife crossings offer a glimmer of hope. Stay tuned.

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21 comments

  1. Why not do a study and find a sound that signals “alarm, run!!” that can be attached to the crossing sites including fences, trees, posts and rocks that are triggered by an approaching vehicle or their headlights?

    1. Thanks for your comment. Versions of this idea have been tried in other areas and would be worth trying in South Texas. That said, I think underpasses — that allow ocelots to go under the road — mean that the animals never touch pavement. That is the best option for both ocelots and drivers.

  2. According to the Texas Department of Transportation the USFWS Laguna Atascosa Refuge and Ecological Services Corpus Christi office has been requiring the construction of wildlife crossings for ocelots since 1995. Under the Endangered Species Act the DOT is required to consult with USFWS whenever a road project may impact the ocelot. Between 1995 and 2010 TxDOT according to their records have constructed over 20 crossings for the ocelot. Swarts either doesn’t know what she is talking about or she and previous USFWS has been having TxDOT construct wildlife crossings for ocelot in inappropriate areas if none have been built in ocelot habitat previously. Considering that TxDOT records show some of the “ocelot” crossings required by consultations with the USFWS include a series of crossings near Old Camino Colombia (7 crossings) with no evidence of any ocelot for the past 30 years. USFWS has spent 30 years or more on the supposed recovery of ocelot and all they have done is acquire land and restore a measly 10,000 acres NONE of which is currently ocelot habitat nor likely to meet their needs in the next decade. Poorly located ocelot crossings required and recommended by the USFWS have taken money’s that could have been applied to placing crossings for ocelots in appropriate areas. The USFWS staff like Swarts who is openly admitting that the Service has required ocelot crossings in areas where there are no ocelots are the problem not the solution to ocelot recovery in Texas.

  3. Thank you for figuring that out. It does work, it has worked in other places for other kinds of wildlife. After all “WE” are the intruders in their way of life. Jehovah put these animals here for us ALL to enjoy. Again THANK YOU!!!!

  4. It sounds like a captive breeding program is a serious consideration to undertake at this point. Our wild American species are unique and worth exerting all available resources and efforts to save.
    Having been in Texas while in the service and visiting family members there more recently, it is shocking how little diversity in wildlife there is in such a large state.
    The Ocelot is one of the most exotic and appealing cats in the entire world. Texas needs to do a much better job of protecting its wildlife diversity.

  5. Ben is the founder of Ocelot Uproar, a company focused on building products loved by users. Ben enjoys looking for the next challenges to solve, …

  6. I’m praying this underground wildlife crossing is helpful! We NEED to SAVE ALL WILDLIFE, in ‘every way’ we can!!!

  7. Oh, its horrible, we need to keep these beautiful animals alive

  8. 1. This is great but Brazilians are ahead of us in the monitoring of and counter measures towards road-killed wildlife. I noted the construction of wildlife crossings in the Pantanal region of MGS, BZ in 1996. Are there updates on success of such efforts?

    2. The surge of ocelot deaths reported here although disturbing, may actually be evidence of expanding numbers in the source population since 6/7 are males. Females moving out suggests that dispersal males, kicked out by dominants, might have some female friends to find outside the core. The question is: what fraction of those dispersing are killed?

    3. An incentive-based conservation plan that fosters volunteer private stewardship might open a window onto unreported ocelot populations across the vast brush country of S Texas. How many private ranches in the region would wish to report ocelots that appear on many hundreds of wildlife game cameras that are operating much of the year ?

  9. We live in Port Mansfield during the winter. Hwy 186 has seen several ocelot deaths. Willacy county reports that there is a population of 50 living in this area….way more than Laguna Atascosa. Officials should consider and build a corridor for ocelots to cross on Hy 186.
    Nancie

  10. Unless it is a very tall fence, they will do like my cat does with our 5′ fence, climb it

  11. I’m so glad that something is being done to help these ocelots. Roads might as well be fifty foot walls that we put in the way of water, food, nurseries, mates for other species. I came to appreciate this when I helped with a detour to spare migrating toads. Since we are taking over the planet, we need to find ways to allow animals to coexist with us. And we shouldn’t have to wait until a species is going extinct to take action to protect them. It’s time to make a requirement that roads being built through known wildlife crossings must include passageways suitable for the species affected.

  12. This is a real shame and a tragedy for these animals. Animals are in such danger when crossing roadways where there are cars traveling fast. There has to be a solution for all of these unnecessary deaths of our wildlife. Special crossings for the animals is a necessary step to take – it should have been taken a long time ago. Every animal counts – every animal matters.

  13. It seems that a tunnel or tunnels should be built under these highways for these animals to use. It’s been done before and it’s saved several species. Believe that they will figure out that this is built for them to use!
    Please give this some consideration . It breaks my heart to see any creature a victim of the roadway.

  14. Didn’t matter if I was living in the hills above Burbank Studios, California, or where I am now in the West Valley outside of Phoenix, Az., on side roads and residential areas, dusk, dawn and at night I always drive with my brights on and 10-15 miles per hour. I am always on the lookout for toads, bunnies, birds, coyotes and any other animals in the vicinity. I love the ocelot and it is one of my favorite animals. Though I know they were native to Southern Arizona, they will probably never make it back according to the death reports coming from Texas.
    There should be brighter lights, signs and posted lower speed limits on the highways warning of “ENDANGERED OCELOT SPECIES” in the vicinity on ALL ROADS. WE CANNOT AFFORD TO LOSE ANY MORE OCELOTS.

    Is there a breeding program in the zoos for them? If not , why not? It would be a shame to lose such beautiful animals.

  15. While travelling on Dec.30 2016 in the early morning we came across a road kill at the junction of hwy 6 and hwy 14, on hwy 14 … about 4 miles before the town of Bremond, Tx. I spotted a big cat that I had never seen before lying dead on the road. It caught my attention because of the spots and the long tail! So I turned around and stopped to take a picture. I texted the image to a friend as I didn’t know what I was looking at. He is a TX Master Naturalist and knows a lot about wildlife.
    He said it appears to be an endangered cat called an ocelot. I had never even heard of them being here in TX. I wonder if it came up the Brazos and then over to the that area around the Twin Oaks Power Station?
    Any way I Googled ocelots in TX and came across your blog. Can send you the pictures I took if you like.

  16. Very interesting !!! I have been an avid outdoorsman all my life. I’m 51 yrs old, and have hunted deer in East tx for 40 yrs. I spent a lot of time in the piney woods around Grapeland and Center Tx. I have been reading about this cat, the oscolot. I feel I need to tell my story, because at the time, I seen one a hunter had shot. This was in 1995, papermill that we leased to hunt around Center Tx. It was opening morning of deer season, and I was just getting to my car, well putting my buck in the trunk of my money carlo……. This man pulled up and stopped and asked me if I had a sec, I said, yea. He walked to the back of his truck, and their lay a cat. He said ” do you know what this is “? And I replied, no sir. 1st one I had ever seen. Looked like a big house cat, leopard looking. I passed it off as being just that. Beautiful kitty. If I knew what I know now, I would’ve called the warden.
    I don’t know if that kill was in a region of Tx the cat is known to exist, but some yrs later I was at the zoo, Ft. Worth and seen that kitty, then it dawned on me that was the same cat I seen in the back of that truck, also a big Endangered sign on the pin.
    I was taught many yrs ago to identify your target, as the warden would tell you, ignorance is no excuse.
    As I said, I have been in the piney woods for 40 yrs, and have only seen 3 bobcat through all them yrs. I watched a bobcat chase a squirrel from the ground up a 40 ft pine, like the thread on a screw, around the tree, all the way up, jumping from tree to tree until he caught that thing. I reckon the only way one will ever get to see something like that, would be to get out and put the time in, and then NOT kill the thing. That to this day is the coolest thing I have ever seen !!!!!
    To make a long story.short, if you shoot these beautiful animals, you will never get to see the really cool stuff !!!!!!