Friday, September 3, 2010

Plan endorses protection for elusive ocelot

Arizona Daily Star
September 2, 2010
by Tony Davis

The U.S. should help the ocelot in Arizona and northern Mexico by protecting its best habitat and movement corridors, identifying major threats, and researching the cat's habitat needs, a new federal recovery plan says.

But the endangered cat could get help in this state from another human source - global warming over the next several decades, biologists familiar with the animal say.

The new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan proposes spending about $60 million over at least the next six years to help out the ocelot in Arizona and Sonora and in the border region of south Texas. There, ocelots have had breeding populations, although their numbers are down to fewer than 25 today.

Authorities have confirmed records of only two ocelots in Arizona since 1964 - both in the past year.

Global warming could draw ocelots from northern Mexico, where they are much more common, according to cat experts from the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University and the Sky Island Alliance, a Tucson conservation group. It's important to make this area hospitable to ocelots so they'll thrive under such conditions, they said.

"I think the chances are better than even that ocelots will expand into the U.S," said Paul Beier, an NAU wildlife ecology professor who sat on an expert team that worked with the service in preparing the recovery plan. "But are we talking about the next 30 or 50 or 10 years? I really don't know the answer. We are exceeding the most pessimistic projections for emissions of greenhouse gases," Beier said. "We're cranking it out, and the world is doing absolutely nothing to slow down that process. It will cause changes in the distribution of animals."

There is a possibility that ocelots have always been in Arizona in very low numbers, simply because it's so easy for rare animals to go undetected, said Melanie Culver, a U.S. Geological Survey geneticist who also worked on the recovery team. It's possible that the population will move north with climate change, said Culver, assistant leader of the Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Arizona.

The recovery plan is less optimistic, warning that drought and wildfires triggered by climate change could make the cats more vulnerable. "It's hard to predict right now with what is going to happen with climate change," said Brady McGee, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Albuquerque. "The ocelot likes very dense and thick vegetation. If the temperature is going to increase in the Southwest, a lot of climatic models show it drying out as well."

Efforts to help ocelots also must consider the wall and fences that now mark much of the Arizona-Sonora border, the ocelot experts say. A part of that fencing - it's not clear how much - will prevent ocelots and many other animals from entering this country, although other parts could be open to the ocelots, experts said.

The Wildlife Service's McGee agreed that the border fence is a barrier to ocelots. He said the recovery plan addresses that issue to a limited extent - "maybe as much as we can at this time."

Ocelot records

• An ocelot has been found at an Indian archaeological site on the San Pedro River east of Redington Pass.

• In 1964, a picture was taken of an ocelot that was shot and killed in the Huachuca Mountains.

• During the next 55 years, more than a half-dozen other reliable reported ocelot sightings occurred in Southern Arizona.

• In November 2009, the Sky Island Alliance's remote camera photographed an ocelot in Cochise County.

• In April 2010, the Arizona Game and Fish Department reported that an ocelot killed by a vehicle was found on a highway near Globe. The department is waiting for a necropsy report on its origin.

• The Sky Island Alliance has photos of three northern Sonora ocelots. It has confirmed that another one was trapped and that a fifth ocelot was killed by a car in that area.

Ocelot recovery

One problem in setting up a recovery strategy for Arizona ocelots is that many things about the animal here still aren't known, said a Tucson biologist and cat specialist.

"What type of habitats do these cats like? Where do they move? When do they do it?" said Sergio Avila, a biologist for the Sky Island Alliance, a conservation group that has photographed ocelots in Arizona and northern Sonora. "It's really difficult to identify a certain type of habitat or vegetation for it. Even elevation - we don't know." Ocelots living in south Texas, in Mexico south of that, and in southern Sonora live in dense tropical thorn-scrub stands - a product of the areas' wet weather. Scientists have said that global warming could bring thorn-scrub into Arizona - if it is accompanied by robust monsoons. Today, climate experts are split over whether global warming will bring more or fewer summer storms. But in northern Sonora, the vegetation where ocelots have been found resembles grasslands and shrubs of Southern Arizona's mountains, except it's thicker down there, Avila said. "Do ocelots need thorn-scrub? We don't know," he said.

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