By Doyle Irvin, American Forests
There were once hundreds of thousands of ocelots all across Louisiana, Arizona, Arkansas and Texas, but now they are nearly entirely extinct in the United States. Scientists studying the species estimate that no more than 100 live today, but some estimates put that number as low as 50. They solely exist (in the United States) in two separate populations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
What happened to the ocelot?
In recent years, the most frequent danger to the ocelot has been vehicles. But this impact, though large in proportion to the currently existing population, is nothing compared to the effect that loss of habitat has had on wild ocelots. Roughly 95 percent of their original habitat is now used for agriculture or urban sprawl. On top of this, prior to protective laws, hundreds of thousands of the beautiful cats were hunted for their furs.
Ocelots were classified as endangered in the 1970s under the Endangered Species Act, and since then restoration efforts have been steadily working to create the kind of habitat where they can thrive. Progress is slow, however: although the restoration effort has been in the works for four decades, as of 2014, only one-tenth of the original land requirement estimate made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been purchased.
These endangered animals thrive in densely thick vegetation. In Texas, this means Talmaulipan thornscrub, which is a thick combination of trees and bush. Once fully grown, this vegetation is essentially incompatible with humans, as it becomes too dense for us to walk through. But, this makes it perfect for wildlife. The thornscrub is one part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, one of the most diverse areas of natural habitat in the United States, with more than 500 different species of birds, 300 different butterflies, 900 types of beetles and 1,200 different species of plants. Eighteen of these different animals are already recognized as endangered species, including the peregrine falcon, the jaguarundi and, of course, the remarkable ocelot.
Recognizing the significant importance of this wildlife refuge, American Forests began working in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 1997. Since then, we have planted more than 2 million trees in the region! That may sound like a lot, but you have to keep in mind the realities of this ecosystem: thornscrub is so incredibly dense that 2 million trees only covers the breeding grounds for roughly 10 ocelots. The project is nowhere near finished. Agricultural encroachment has reduced the wild areas of the Lower Rio Grande Valley to just 5 percent of what they once were, so that wildlife exists only in packets and strips of unconnected area — meaning that the ocelot, when it roams as it needs to, has to pass over roads and highways that constitute up to half of current ocelot fatalities.
This winter, American Forests is recommitting itself to protecting the Lower Rio Grande Valley and its graceful ocelot with our Home for the Holidays initiative. We are working with our corporate partners and individuals, just like you, to reestablish the Talmaulipan thornscrub that is vital to the survival of countless different species. Help us protect this incredible part of the American wild with a contribution today!