Rancho Caracol

Fighting extinction

Researchers, ranch owner look for ways to save Texas ocelots
By David Sikes


ABASOLO, Mexico — After Michael Tewes captured his first Texas ocelot in 1982, he received a bottle of Jack Daniels from an older colleague who had wagered that the young wildcat biologist would fail in this quest.

Ocelots were that rare in Texas. The colorful cat was declared endangered in 1972.

Since then, the Corpus Christi born Tewes, who was raised in Odem, has gone on to become one of the world’s premier feline researchers. As head of the Feline Research Center at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville he has captured, studied and written about a dozen or so different wild and exotic cats from around the world.

But Tewes’ main focus these days is centered in extreme South Texas. And the stakes are much higher than a bottle of Tennessee whiskey.

The elusive ocelot or painted leopard once thrived in Texas’ thickest and most unforgiving brush. But because these impenetrable tangles are disappearing from the Texas landscape, the state’s ocelot population has diminished to an estimated 50 cats isolated to parts of Cameron and Willacy counties.

Populations this small are genetically doomed. The collapse could take 20 years, Tewes said. Or the wildcat’s gradual demise could endure another 50 years. Nobody knows.

What is certain, Tewes believes, is that Texas ocelots will become extinct without intervention.

They need new blood, a newfound diversity, which could come only from a separate and distinct wild population.

Thankfully, an ocelot factory exists about 150 miles south of Harlingen in the remote thickets of Tamaulipas, Mexico. Conveniently in this region is a wingshooters’ haven called Rancho Caracol, owned by the Putegnat family of Brownsville.

Patriarch Barry Putegnat is a conservationist willing to provide the necessary ocelot genetics. But first, the Mexican government must agree to donate the cats.

And so this has become the unified goal of Rancho Caracol, the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute and others.

The Putegnats have welcomed Tewes and his graduate students to this premier quail and dove lodge, allowing it to become their Mexican ocelot trapping and tracking headquarters. Ocelots abound in the surrounding hills and jungles. In fact, researchers at Rancho Caracol have documented five of the seven wildcats native to North America. In addition to ocelots, the most abundant cat on the property, Rancho Caracol has jaguarundis, cougars or mountain lions, bobcats and jaguars. Yes, magnificent 200-pound jaguars.

The next step would be to provide or set aside adequate habitat for a Texas population of ocelots to grow. And that effort is well under way. In December, Frank and Mary Yturria of Brownsville established through The Nature Conservancy a 1,300-acre conservation easement on their San Francisco Ranch in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

The selling price was far below market value. And it was paid for with the Cooperative Endangered Species Fund, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fund administered by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The Yturria property along with the nearby Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge are home to the only known breeding populations of ocelots in Texas. These two populations are the only places ocelots are found regularly in the United States, though rare sightings years ago were reported in southern Arizona.

So far, 11 ocelots have been found on the Yturria’s San Francisco Ranch.

The Yturrias had previously donated 1,178 acres of ocelot habitat to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Nature Conservancy played a role in the largest and latest of these easements.

Conservation easements such as this are legal agreements between landowners and the government, which guarantee in perpetuity the land will never be developed or cleared. The landowner usually receives a tax break on the property as part of the arrangement.

Two year’s ago, the Yturrias donated $500,000 to A&M-Kingsville to establish a research chair for wildcat studies. This was matched by the Caesar Kleberg Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, which is chaired by King Ranch family member Tio Kleberg. This makes up the majority of Tewes’ funding.

San Antonio’s Tim Hixon, a former TPW commissioner, provides another $50,000 annually to fund this extensive research, which consumes about $250,000 annually.

When Barry Putegnat learned what his friend, Frank Yturria, was doing to save the ocelots, he stepped up. Before then, Putegnat was unaware of the ocelot’s peril or the program to save them. He considers his contribution a conservation payback in exchange for the natural bounty he enjoys.

“We knew we had a ton of them on the ranch,” Putegnat said. “And it wouldn’t hurt our marketing brand to be a part of the international cat program. And we get to save the ocelots in Texas. What a deal.”

During the past year, Rancho Caracol has provided lodging, meals, vehicles and manpower for wildcat researchers from the institute. The Putegnats’ goal is to expand this academic program indefinitely.

The husband and wife research team of Arturo Caso and Sasha Carvajal, both Mexican nationals, split their time between field research at Rancho Caracol, completing their graduate degrees at the Caesar Kleberg Institute in Kingsville and then trapping and tracking cats in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

Since February 2009, Caso and Carvajal have identified 34 ocelots within Ranch Caracol. During 15 days of trapping, they captured 12 ocelots and placed radio collars on 11. One was a 10-month-old cat, which was released without a collar. To give you an idea of the density of cats on Caracol, Caso said it took him four months to trap seven ocelots at other Tamaulipan sites.

Tewes figures they must document at least 175 ocelots within Tamaulipas in order for Mexican wildlife officials to grant them permission to remove some.

They’ve also identified 15 jaguarundis, 10 jaguars, 10 cougars and five bobcats on the property. Imagine that, bobcats are the least common.

In addition to using science to convince the Mexican government to donate ocelots to Texas, which is Carvajal’s Ph.D. dissertation, the research pair hopes to expand their field laboratories on both fronts. Already, Caso, who’s family owns a ranch in Mexico, has established relationships with five other properties in Tamaulipas.

Back in Texas, the hope is that the Yturria family’s generosity and endorsement of the ocelot program also will encourage participation from surrounding landowners.

And Tewes has recently revealed a separate and intriguing dream to establish a population of ocelots in the Coastal Bend. This might be a remote possibility, but Tewes believe it’s one worth pursuing because the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge north of Rockport has several thousand acres of dense woody cover, ideal for ocelots.

But for now, the goal of expanding genetics in Texas would involve transplanting about four young female ocelots from Mexico to the Rio Grande Valley each year or so, while expanding habitat. This expansion and restoration of ancient wildlife corridors should enhance the ocelot’s chance for survival while reducing road kills, which is a major cause of ocelot deaths in Texas.

The good news is that ocelots, cattle and hunting are compatible. These small colorful cats don’t eat deer and rarely kill quail because ocelots shy from open pasture and grassland.

I’m recommending that Tewes challenge his young graduate students with a wager similar to the one from his youth. But the bottle should match the bet. I’m thinking Crown Royal.

David Sikes’ Outdoors columns run Thursday and Sunday. Contact David at (361) 886-3616 or sikesd@caller.com.

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