Everything we know about the ocelot rewilding plan in South Texas

Everything we know about the ocelot rewilding plan in South Texas
9 months 8 hours 33 minutes ago Sunday, August 27 2023 Aug 27, 2023 August 27, 2023 2:35 PM August 27, 2023 in News - Local

It's been a long time coming for this green light from federal regulators. Over the next several months, partner organizations are laying the groundwork for an ocelot breeding program in the southernmost counties in Texas.

The end goal is to release the endangered cats onto previously uninhabited private ranches. Those future habitats are undisclosed by authorities at this time. But there's now a clear plan to address the current problem.

"Right now, our problem is we don't have a lot of South Texas Ocelots, said Dr. Dave Hewitt, executive director of Cesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute. 

Experts believe there are fewer than 120 native ocelots remaining in the United States. There are more in Mexico and Latin America. But the few remaining in Texas include those on Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron County, and the El Sauz Ranch in Willacy County.

"What we can do is we can get semen from males captured in South Texas, and use that to inseminate a female in the zoo population," said Hewitt.

Project participants are trying to work around a genetic problem. They want to preserve the unique genetic blend of Texas ocelots. But exceedingly low numbers in the Valley can lead to inbreeding. The project participants want to grow the pool of potential mothers and fathers by adding some non-Texan ocelots to the mix.

Two South Texas wildlife centers already tried this with a pair of female ocelots named Milla and Leeloo.

"We tried to do an artificial insemination with her," said Walter Dupree, curator of mammals at Gladys Porter Zoo. The zoo made the attempt with Leeloo last fall, which was not successful. But Leeloo is still young, and the process can be attempted again.

At the Texas State Aquarium, Milla underwent the same attempt around the same time. It was also unsuccessful, though staff want to try again.

"It was an incredible procedure. I think it really showed where veterinary medicine has gone," said Jesse Gilbert, the CEO and president of the aquarium.

He said the artificial insemination attempts are new territory for the veterinary staff. Through the process, they're learning about the influence of hormone cycles and the reproductive cycle.

"Every time we do this, we learn a little bit more."

Ocelot recovery has been at a virtual stalemate for decades. Ocelot mothers typically give birth to one or two kittens. But conditions in the wild are harsh. Young kittens face predators. Dispersing males are found dead along highways, where they are killed by cars. Strong heat waves and hurricanes pose additional dangers to the remaining population.

The new grant from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Cesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute awards $12.2 million to pay for future breeding efforts. Dr. Hewitt, the center director, said they plan to build a breeding center using private donations. The federal grant pays for staffing as the project unfolds over the coming years.

"We'll probably do two generations of that, so we can get up to 75 percent Texas genetics," said Hewitt.

In order to take advantage of non-Texan genes, Hewitt said they plan to breed candidates for wild release over two generations. In the first generation, native Texan male sperm would be combined with a non-Texan female. That would leave the newborn with 50 percent Texas genes. Breeding that individual once more with a native Texan partner would leave the offspring of the second generation with 75 percent Texas genes.

In preparation for this, the East Foundation, a holding of several South Texas ranches, has been collecting male ocelot sperm at its ranch in Willacy County for the last five years. The El Sauz ranch is home to a wild ocelot population. 

"We've been able to secure samples from a number of males," said Dr. Jason Sawyer, chief science officer for East Foundation. "We can store them indefinitely for future use."

They now have a bank of 20 different male ocelot sperm that will help as the project moves ahead.

Construction on the breeding facility, to be based in Kingsville, is expected to start by next year, said Hewitt. Ocelot breeding at the facility is expected by 2025.

Watch the video above for the full story.

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