Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge spans 97,000 acres of beaches, wetlands and scrub forest on the Gulf Coast near Brownsville, Texas. Sometimes called the “last great habitat” in coastal south Texas, this region provides vital habitat for multitudes of species that depend on the rich diversity of habitats here near the Rio Grande.
The refuge is a patchwork of protected areas divided by private lands and development. The salty lagoon of Atascosa itself and the surrounding scrublands form the largest section. The Bahía Grande unit represents one of the greatest wetland restoration successes in American history, and is an important breeding area for fish and shellfish. The refuge also includes a section of South Padre Island, a sandy barrier island where peregrine falcons rest and sea turtles lay their eggs. Acquisition of a fourth section, the Boswell-Jenkins tract, is underway, which will include prairie, freshwater wetlands, and rare, “hypersaline” salt marsh habitats.
The Atascosa refuge is one of the most biologically diverse areas in North America, providing home to 45 types of mammals, 44 reptile species, 130 types of butterflies, 417 bird species and 450 plant species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. First established in 1946, the refuge’s original purpose was to conserve migrating waterfowl like redhead ducks. Today, nearly half of all U.S. bird species nest in or pass through the refuge as they fly north up the Central Flyway. Atascosa is also home to several rare amphibians and reptiles, like Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles.
The star of Laguna Atascosa, however, may be the ocelot, a very rare breed of wildcat. While the ocelot’s range extends from northern Argentina and throughout South and Central America, they can also be found in Texas and Arizona. The small cat, which once roamed as far north and east as Arkansas and Louisiana, has suffered extensive habitat loss and is now endangered in the U.S. Perhaps 30 ocelots remain in and around Laguna Atascosa, the last viable population left in the country.
Unfortunately, habitat adjacent to the refuge is under attack. Three liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals are being planned for the port of Brownsville. This heavy industrial development would drastically alter the character of the port and impact the refuge by cutting off wildlife corridors that ocelots use to access Atascosa. For example, one proposed facility would be constructed where ocelots swim across a channel to the refuge, an area that is vitally important to maintaining the connectivity between ocelot populations in the U.S. and Mexico.
Under pressure from wildlife advocates and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the company agreed to a slight shift in the footprint of their proposed terminal. However, it is far from clear whether ocelots would still be able to continue to cross the channel, given the noise, 24-hour lighting, traffic, and other disturbances associated with the proposed terminals. Defenders attorneys are engaging in the permitting process for these projects, and will do everything we can to prevent these damaging projects from going forward.
Ocelots need our help. FWS updated its recovery plan for the species in July, a big step toward establishing a strong population of ocelots in the U.S. But the plan makes clear that the Texas population will not survive long-term unless we protect and restore more thorn scrub habitat for the cat. Preserving our public lands from threats, both internal and external, is the first step in this process, so that they can continue to be safe havens for our nation’s wildlife.