BROWNSVILLE , TEXAS —The first ocelot kitten seen in Texas in more than ten years has been photographed at in Cameron County, Texas. Ocelots were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1972, and there are believed to be less than 100 left in the United States .
The birth of an ocelot should be a hopeful sign of recovery, but it is marred by the looming onset of border wall construction along the U.S.-Mexico border in Cameron County , which puts this kitten’s future – and the future of the entire Texas ocelot population – in grave jeopardy.
“As we’ve seen with the border walls in California and Arizona , human beings can easily climb over walls with ladders or tunnel under them with a shovel,” said Jim Chapman, chair of the Sierra Club Group. “Ocelots and other wildlife are stopped dead in their tracks.”
Ocelots once lived in dense brush habitat throughout Mexico and the southern U.S., but farms, roads, fences, and housing developments have destroyed and fragmented their habitat along the Rio Grande, pushing populations in the two nations farther apart, and further isolating the Texas cats. Isolation weakens the gene pool and makes the population susceptible to catastrophic declines due to inbreeding or disease.
In 1979 a collaborative effort to bolster the ocelot population of South Texas began by piecing together and rehabilitating tracts of former farmland to create the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The ribbon of habitat that lines the Rio Grande acts as a , connecting these refuge tracts to state lands and privately owned parks like Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary and The Nature Conservancy’s Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve. Individually, none of these tracts would be large enough to support a healthy ocelot population, but with the Rio Grande corridor allowing for movement between tracts, and encouraging cross-border movements, it was hoped that their extirpation in the U.S. could be avoided.
The U.S.-Mexico border wall currently under construction will slice through the wildlife corridor, utterly undermining its purpose and decades of hard work and financial investment. The path of the wall follows the Rio Grande through prime riparian habitat, cutting some refuge tracts in two and severing others from the river, which in many places is the only source of fresh water.
Karen Chapman of the Environmental Defense Fund notes that, although the continued urban development of South Texas poses threats to the ocelot, “no other project so completely isolates habitat patches north and south, so completely renders riparian habitat inaccessible or so thoroughly eliminates the potential for future north-south habitat corridors.”
Concrete border walls topped with metal bars are already tearing through the wildlife corridor in neighboring Hidalgo County , upriver from Cameron County ’s refuge tracts. When the combination levee/border wall was proposed for Hidalgo County last year, Deputy Director Kenneth Stansell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote to the Customs and Border Protection agency that “any proposed fence and/or levee segment that bisects lands within the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge cannot be found compatible with the purposed for which the Refuge was established.”
With the levee/border walls nearing completion in Hidalgo County ’s refuge tracts, the preservation of the wildlife corridor that remains in Cameron County is even more critical to the ocelots’ survival.
“The last administration swept away dozens of environmental laws to fast-track the construction of an enormously expensive, ineffective border wall,” said Noah Kahn, wildlife refuge program manager for Defenders of Wildlife. “President Obama has made it very clear that he intends to restore scientific integrity to federal actions. We hope that will include steps to reverse or mitigate the damage that the border wall is inflicting on wildlife, habitat and people along our southern border.”