The Nature Conservancy of Texas and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today the acquisition of a 1,300-acre conservation easement on a private ranch that is one of only two known areas in the United States with populations of breeding ocelots, a species on the brink of disappearing from this nation.
An easement of this size is critically important because most of the dense thornscrub habitat preferred by ocelots in Texas has been cleared for agriculture and development. Researchers estimate less than 1 percent of remaining habitat in South Texas is suitable for these extremely rare cats.
The Nature Conservancy purchased the easement, located on the San Francisco Ranch in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley and owned by Frank and Mary Yturria of Brownsville, Texas, with money from the Cooperative Endangered Species Fund. The fund is authorized under Section 6 of the Endangered Species Act, and in Texas, Section 6 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funds are administered by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Frank Yturria, whose family has owned the ranch for more than 100 years, said he sold the easement at a significant bargain price to help in the recovery of ocelots. Fewer than 50 wild ocelots are believed to remain in South Texas. Although extensive surveys have documented individuals in other areas, there’s no evidence that breeding populations exist outside of the San Francisco Ranch and the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, located about 20 miles southeast of the property.
Three other conservation easements benefitting ocelots already exist on the San Francisco Ranch. In 1989, the Yturrias donated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service two easements totaling 481 acres, and in 2007 the Conservancy partnered on a 697-acre easement with the family.
“The role of private landowners is critical to the recovery of the ocelot, and Mr. Yturria has a long history of working to restore this species,” said Kelly McDowell, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s project leader for the South Texas Refuge Complex. “This purchase is especially important because it connects existing easements and protects a larger block of habitat, an essential part of ensuring ocelots remain part of the Texas landscape.”
Last winter, monitoring of ocelot populations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documented 11 animals on the existing conservation easements at the San Francisco Ranch.
“There are so few ocelots left in the United States, I want conservation easements on this land to ensure the habitat is there for ocelots and other wildlife for generations to come,” Yturria said. “I want to do my part to save these endangered cats.”
In 2008, Yturria committed $500,000 over a two-year period to Texas A&M in Kingsville to establish a research chair for wildcat studies. His gift was matched by the late Mary Lewis Kleberg.
Because the Yturrias sold the easement at a bargain price, the family will claim a donation and receive a tax credit for the difference between the purchase price and the appraised value of the easement.
The Conservancy will manage the easement to benefit ocelots in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will also continue to monitor populations of the cats on the San Francisco Ranch easements.
“These types of innovative conservation actions – those involving partnerships between state and federal agencies, non-profit organizations and private landowners – are key to the recovery of the ocelot in the U.S.,” said Sonia Najera, the Conservancy’s south Texas program manager. “This is a fantastic story of how people can work together to save an iconic part of our natural heritage.”
Najera said the partners in the project hope to showcase the benefits to the Yturria family and to wildlife on their ranch in order to enter into management agreements with neighboring landowners.
“Texas ocelots face a dire future unless habitat is protected and restored so that populations to the north – at the San Francisco Ranch – and those to the south – at the Laguna Atascosa National Refuge – can interact. Expanding a north-south corridor is critical to their survival,” Najera said. “We also want to thank the Robert J. Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation as well as the El Paso Corporation, which have worked with the Conservancy for the protection of wildlife corridors in South Texas.”
The Nature Conservancy of Texas maintains more than 30 ecologically important preserves and conservation projects statewide. In addition to a dozen initiatives benefiting Texas rivers and creeks, the Conservancy also works with private landowners and municipalities, such as the cities of San Antonio, Austin and San Marcos, to protect critical freshwater resources like the Edwards and Trinity aquifers. Over the past 45 years, the Conservancy has worked with state and federal agencies to create and expand beloved public areas, including Enchanted Rock State Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. The organization has also led significant marine habitat restoration efforts along the Gulf that benefit terrestrial and aquatic wildlife and help protect human communities from hurricanes and tropical storms.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.