Some major changes are planned at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge that will have an effect on visitors.
On Oct. 15 the15-mile Bayside Drive will be closed to motorized vehicles, though it will remain open for hikers and bicyclists.
The popular drive is being closed after two ocelots became road casualties on the tour loop, including a nursing female. Part of Bayside Drive passes through known ocelot habitat.
The refuge will continue to offer tram and shuttle rides, however.
In addition, the visitors center will be closed Tuesday and Wednesday because of a staffing shortage.
Laguna Atascosa and adjacent habitat is one of two strongholds for the endangered ocelot, a small spotted cat about the size of a bobcat.
Within the past few years the official estimate for ocelots in South Texas has been reduced from less than 100 to about 50. The other ocelot population is farther north in ranch country. The refuge has by far the most cats.
Ocelots are shy, secretive cats mainly active after dusk and in my 16 years in the Rio Grande Valley and a frequent refuge visitor, I have see three.
The first sighting was in October during my first year in the Valley. I had staked out a trail and hoped an ocelot or other mammal would come walking past. I remember it was late in the day and I could see a storm approaching from the northwest. I was looking up the northern part of the trail, but every once in awhile I would turn around to see if there was something behind me.
To my amazement, when I turned around less than 25 feet away was an adult ocelot in the middle of the trail staring at me. I tried to get photos, but as soon as we made eye contact the cat disappeared into the brush.
The second time was on the front part of Bayside Drive. I first thought it was a bobcat because a few days earlier I had seen one at approximately the same place. The cat was more nervous than a bobcat and uncertain whether it should cross the road or go back. It eventually decided to go back. As soon as I saw the tail dragging on the ground, I knew this was no bobcat.
The third time was just a few years ago when a juvenile male came for a drink at the visitors center. As it turns out, the ocelot was a sick cat and was found dead the following day. The cat was the son of Esperanza, one of the refuge’s top breeding ocelots.
I have been in love with ocelots ever since I learned Texas still had a viable population. Along with refuge biologist Linda Laack, I started the Ocelot Conservation Festival, with all money raised going for ocelot research and project. Over the years, the festival has generated thousands of dollars to help with ocelot preservation.
The future of the ocelot in Texas is by no means certain. Mike Tewes, an expert on Texas wild cats at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Kingsville, once told me that one model has the ocelot disappearing from the state within 50 years. Other models are more optimistic.
But wildlife officials are committed to maintaining and hopefully increasing the ocelot population through management techniques and there has even been discussions of bringing ocelots from Mexico to Texas to help diversify the gene pool. Currently, most of the ocelots at Laguna Atascosa are related.
The only ocelots in the United States are found in Texas and they are truly a treasure of the Lone Star State.