Ocelots in Arizona?

Recent appearance of the tropical cats spurs update of federal recovery plan

  • A hidden camera captures what's thought to be the first-ever photo of a wild ocelot in Arizona last November. The photo is clearly not that of a bobcat, the short-tailed feline sometimes mistaken for an ocelot.

    Sky Island Alliance
  • Ocelot (captive)

    Wikipedia/CC, bclarkesmith
  • Range of the ocelot

    Brion Vibber, CC/Wikipedia
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service

Shortly after 8 p.m. on Nov. 7, 2009, a spotted cat strolled past a motion-sensitive camera that an amateur naturalist named Michael Quigley had tied to a tree in a desert mountain range. The resulting photo is reportedly the first taken showing a live wild ocelot in Arizona. It's also the first verified sighting in the state since 1964, when one of the shy, nocturnal cats -- long-tailed and medium-sized with distinctive markings splashed over tawny fur -- was legally shot in the Huachuca Mountains.

"We were very excited," recalls Sergio Avila, a wildlife biologist for Sky Island Alliance, the Tucson-based conservation group that supervised placement of the camera by Quigley, its wilderness campaign coordinator, roughly 40 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border and west of the New Mexico line.

Five months after the photo was taken, a vehicle killed a second ocelot on Highway 60 between Globe and Superior, more than 100 miles northwest of where the first animal was seen. Preliminary examination by the Arizona Game and Fish Department indicates that this ocelot, a male, was not of captive origin.

Now, scientists, environmentalists and wildlife agencies are weighing the implications of this exotic species' return to the Southwest. The ocelot was listed as endangered in the U.S. in 1982 -- and as an endangered foreign species back in 1972 --  and it has similar designations in countries throughout much of its shrinking Western Hemisphere range. The angry response of Southwestern ranchers and politicians to recent government efforts on behalf of endangered jaguars and Mexican wolves has forced officials to proceed cautiously. A draft update of a federal recovery plan for ocelots has received almost no publicity, and -- given the mood of the electorate and the state of the economy -- may find itself with little or no money.

"There are no funds allocated in advance" for recovery actions, nor is there any way to predict what they might receive, says Brady McGee, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist overseeing the ocelot plan. The draft, released in August, calls for an evaluation of suitable ocelot habitat in Arizona and southeastern Texas, and suggests that the U.S. work closely with Mexico to protect movement corridors as well as the animal's preferred territory across the border. It requests more research on the cat's needs and possible threats to its survival, including disease, drought and wildfire. It would also provide incentives for ocelot protection on private land so officials can work with ranchers who might otherwise quietly kill the animals to avoid potentially expensive development restrictions. Depending on how aggressive an approach the feds decide to take, implementation is projected to cost between $345,500 and $5 million annually.

Leopardus pardalis generally lives in tropical and subtropical regions from Mexico to Argentina, preferring swamps, jungles and thickets where it hunts birds and other small creatures. Fewer than 50 ocelots survive in southern Texas, near the mouth of the Rio Grande. To date, virtually all U.S. research and recovery efforts have focused in that state, where the cat once ranged nearly as far west as El Paso and north to Amarillo.

The Arizona ocelots are believed to be males dispersing north from the Mexican state of Sonora, where a breeding population of an estimated 1,000 cats persists in the northeastern backcountry. Sky Island Alliance has photographed at least four ocelots 30 to 40 miles south of the border since 2007. About 100 miles farther south, the Sierra Madre ranches monitored by the Northern Jaguar Project yield even more frequent sightings. But "there is scant evidence that Arizona or New Mexico supported a breeding ocelot population in the last 200 years," says Paul Beier, a Northern Arizona University wildlife ecologist who contributed to the new recovery proposal. The states may never have had good ocelot habitat, says McGee, and today, it's even more limited.

The situation is similar to that of another tropical habitué that recently reappeared in the Southwest -- the jaguar. In the mid-'90s, two males turned up in Arizona, one in the Peloncillo Mountains and another in the Baboquivari Range. The sightings led to formation of several jaguar conservation study groups overseen by Arizona Game and Fish and to years of contentious debate -- and litigation -- over how best to manage the cat, not known to breed in the U.S. for at least 47 years. But last year, the agency came under heavy criticism and federal investigation after the Baboquivari jaguar, dubbed Macho B, had to be euthanized for kidney failure two weeks after state field technicians captured and radio-collared him under suspicious circumstances. (The cat was apparently lured in with jaguar scat planted by independent biologists.) The state fired one field tech for concocting a cover story; in May, Borderlands Jaguar Detection Group biologist Emil McCain, accused of overseeing the scat-planting, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of illegally taking an endangered species.

In the wake of the debacle, Arizona authorities seem reluctant to play a lead role in ocelot conservation. "We're participating," says the state's non-game program supervisor Bill Van Pelt, a member of the team crafting the document. But, he adds, the state will wait for the final federal proposal before moving forward. The latter agency retains ultimate responsibility for U.S. endangered species and is reviewing public comments on its draft plan; the final strategy likely won't be decided until late next year.

Southwestern ocelot conservation may face an uphill battle, given the response to the agency's recent proposals for jaguar recovery.  In September, a coalition including the Southern Arizona Cattle Producers Association, Rosemont Copper and People for the West told the Fish and Wildlife Service that the jaguar plan would leave the door "wide open for many other senseless, abusive, politically motivated and scientifically baseless proposals ... to bring back long gone or nonexistent creatures at incredible public and private landowner expense."

Regardless of what the feds decide, ocelots might move north in greater numbers if climate change compromises their core habitat, says Beier. Beier and others worry that fence construction and increased human activity along the border may stand in the way. The recovery plan suggests measures including animal-friendly barriers that allow cats to cross in specially designated areas, such as desert mountain ranges -- the "sky islands" that jaguars and mountain lions appear to use as travel corridors. But high walls erected along urbanized areas of the border have also driven more illegal human traffic into those same mountains, disturbing sensitive wildlife.

The Interior Department has provided at least one hopeful sign to ocelot advocates. In October, it revealed the first actions it plans to take as part of a $52-million program designed to compensate for harm to endangered species caused by border fence construction and related security measures. Included is $2.1 million to survey and restore habitat believed to be favored by jaguars -- and possibly ocelots -- as well as setting up cameras to photograph the felines.

Still, says Avila, "government agencies must assign more importance to such species in order to justify what people feel is an 'expense.' With these ocelot sightings, we are at the same turning point where jaguars were 14 years ago."

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