January 6, 2011

The ocelot, a spotted feline not much larger than domestic cats, has been documented to occur across two continents — all the way from Argentina to Arizona.  In recent years, a series of verified ocelot occurrences have been confirmed only 30 miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border through field research conducted by Sky Island Alliance. And two verified sightings, as recently as 2009-2010, confirm that the Sonoran subspecies of ocelots still calls southern Arizona home, at least intermittently.  Yet, some have been too quick to dismiss the potentially crucial role Arizona may play for ocelot recovery and evolution.

OcelotAs Defenders stated in recent comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on their draft ocelot recovery plan, considerations related to climate change and an increasingly impermeable and degraded international border call for the development of robust ocelot research, conservation and recovery strategies to include the northernmost portion of the ocelot’s historic and current range in southern Arizona.

The ocelot faces a host of threats to its very existence, including habitat loss and degradation, poaching, mounting border-related disturbances and barriers (e.g. walls), and more intense climate change-driven droughts (droughts have shown to significantly diminish reproductive success). The threat of intensified drought in northern Sonora, as some climate change models predict will occur, may necessitate a northward range shift into Arizona and other Southwestern U.S. states  (Last month, High Country News published a great article on this and other ocelot issues).

Ocelots can be hard to find in the wild. They’re nocturnal by nature, and spend much of their time in very dense and thorny vegetation, so it’s not surprising that people don’t report seeing ocelots very often, even where they do exist in relative abundance.

The ocelot faces a host of threats to its very existence, including habitat loss and degradation, poaching, mounting border-related disturbances and barriers and more intense climate change-driven droughts.

While there’s no evidence that the Sonoran subspecies of ocelot has bred north of the US – Mexico border in recent times, we can’t say for certain that it hasn’t either, because the government and the scientific community have failed to conduct a systematic survey north of the border for this rare and elusive species.

Unlike the well-studied and highly managed ocelots in south Texas, the ocelot population in the Mexican state of Sonora is very poorly studied. Only one effort to estimate the population’s size has been made, and that study (Lopez Gonzales et al., 2003) was based on very limited data (only 36 records). The study estimated that some 2,025 ocelots – plus or minus 675 cats – may live in the northern Sierra Madre. Unfortunately, the 2003 study did not include southern Arizona, but it did recognize the vital and growing importance of the ocelot’s northermost habitats: “As noted for other threatened species, the most distant portions of species’ distributions have been the last refuge for their survival, and this may also be the case for the future of the ocelot in North America.”

Male ocelots have been well-documented to roam no more than 5-25 kilometers in search of new territories and mates.  So the fact that a wild male ocelot was recently struck and killed by a vehicle as far north as Globe, Arizona (150 km north of the Arizona/Mexico border) suggests that a population of breeding ocelots may exist near, or even north of, the political dividing line we call the border. And even if ocelots are not now breeding in Arizona, there may still be ample habitat to support a breeding population in the future.

Now more than ever, conservation planning for the ocelot should be guided by science, not politics or special interests.  The potential contribution that southern Arizona could make to the future recovery of the ocelot should not be underestimated or downplayed, and in fact we argue, it should be central to the development of a forward-thinking and successful recovery vision for the ocelot.

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