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During an event on March 19, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and East Foundation officially approved a Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement to aid in the recovery and reintroduction of the secretive ocelot to south Texas.

This landmark agreement continues progress toward ocelot recovery from federally endangered status within the safety of private working lands. It is valid for 30 years but can be extended.


The event included attendees from USFWS, East Foundation, Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). These organizations and others have participated in the Recover Texas Ocelots project to develop and assess strategies for ocelot reintroduction. Representatives from the Texas Wildlife Association and the South Texas Property Rights Association also attended to celebrate the role of private landowners in the conservation of the ocelot, one of Texas’ most iconic and rare native species.

“The importance of innovative approaches and partnerships between private landowners, science, state agencies, federal agencies, and non-governmental organizations in moving conservation forward is why we are here today,” said John Silovsky, TPWD Wildlife Division director. “This Safe Harbor Agreement will allow landowners to continue with their operations unimpeded while also helping in the recovery of ocelots to Texas. TPWD is proud to partner on this project and staff are excited to continue in assisting with the recovery of the ocelot so we can ensure these iconic animals are still around for future generations in South Texas.”

The East Foundation’s San Antonio Viejo Ranch in Jim Hogg and Starr Counties was identified as an ocelot reintroduction site based on its potential ocelot habitat. The brush density and composition, along with the fact that the ranch lies within a remote area of working ranchlands, results in an ideal landscape to start the reintroduction of the rare cat species.

“Private working lands are essential for the conservation and recovery of native species, and private land stewards are often very interested in these efforts,” said Jason Sawyer, chief science officer for the East Foundation. “However, they must weigh the conservation benefits against perceived risks often associated with the management of federally listed species. Part of our planning effort included ensuring that private landowners can actively participate in a desirable conservation activity without jeopardizing their ability to manage their land for multiple benefits. The Safe Harbor Agreement we are signing today provides private landowners with that assurance.”

Under the agreement, ocelots will strategically be released at the San Antonio Viejo Ranch with the hopes of establishing a permanent population. Researchers will monitor them to evaluate program success and develop knowledge to further support ocelot populations.

The agreement is ‘programmatic,’ meaning it can include multiple landowners. Any private landowner in Zapata, Jim Hogg, Starr, Brooks and Hidalgo Counties located west of Highway 281 can participate by obtaining a Certificate of Inclusion from the East Foundation.

Participating landowners do not have to release ocelots onto their property but promise to allow ocelots to use the habitat on their land and cooperate with the East Foundation to allow for ocelot monitoring. Participating landowners may work with the Foundation to conduct habitat management or research activities to benefit ocelots on their lands. Participating in the program will protect landowners from any Endangered Species Act regulatory surprises related to ocelots that could impact their land uses, and they can maintain their privacy.

The Safe Harbor Agreement also establishes that any private landowners within 31 miles of the ocelot release locations on the San Antonio Viejo Ranch will not have any land use restrictions or other regulations placed upon them related to reintroduced ocelots—even if the landowners do not sign up for a Certificate of Inclusion.

Now that the Safe Harbor Agreement is approved, partners will begin to develop a source stock of ocelots to use for the reintroduction. Over the next year, the partners plan to construct an Ocelot Conservation Facility in Kingsville, which will be used to breed and raise ocelots. Producing the first ocelot offspring is expected to take a few years.

For more information, visit https://recovertexasocelots.org/about-the-texas-ocelot

About the Ocelot

The ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) is a small, wild cat species that has been classified in the United States as federally endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1982. The only remaining breeding ocelot populations in the United States occur in deep South Texas along the Gulf Coast.


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