$8 million road construction project aimed at saving rare ocelots

Project is first such attempt to protect endangered cats

CAMERON COUNTY, Texas(KSAT) -- In the first such attempt to save endangered ocelots that frequent the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge, 12 underground corridors are being installed beneath two roads where 40 percent of the rare cats have been killed by traffic.

Due for completion in March 2017, the $8 million project in Cameron County is a joint effort by the Texas Department of Transportation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We're super excited to see what happens," said Hilary Swarts, a USFWS wildlife biologist.

Swarts said an estimated 80 ocelots are left in Texas, including those that come through the refuge.

She said in addition to dozens of others over the years, seven ocelots, mostly males, were killed during a 10-month period in Cameron, Kenedy and Willacy counties.

Swarts said the deadly string began in June 2015, after nearly a year without an ocelot road death.

She said that several other deaths have occurred in the past on State Highway 106, which bisects prime ocelot habitat on the refuge, and on State Highway 100, which borders the refuge between Los Fresnos and Port Isabel, the primary route to South Padre Island.

Swarts said three recent deaths were reported on State Highway 186 in Willacy County, where wildlife crossings are now under discussion.

"We know 16 of them by their patterns, maybe a couple of more," she said.

Swarts said four ocelots have died on SH 100 since about 2009 after TxDOT put in concrete medians to help prevent head-on collisions.

"A hit of four is 20 percent of the population," Swarts said.

TxDOT spokesman Octavio Saenz said the agency made an effort to protect the endangered species.

"Perforations were made along the concrete barrier that separates the two directions of traffic," he said.

Swarts said despite the effort, ocelots did perish.

"Because 100 is so busy, they can't get across or they're hesitant to get across," she said.

Laguna Atascosa Refuge manager Boyd Blihovde said last May, the under-the-road crossings would help reduce chances of ocelots being hit by vehicles.

But how will the cats know to use the underpasses?

"We can't put up a sign saying, 'Cross here, cross here,'" Swarts said.

She said chain link fencing will extend from above the underpass and along the sides to act as a type of funnel.

Saenz said additional fencing will line SH 100 along the refuge to help direct the ocelots to the four underpasses.

"You're really talking about understanding the animal, its biology and movements, what they prefer," Swarts said about how roads affect wildlife.

She said the underpasses are large enough for the ocelots to clearly see what's on the other side.

Swarts said similar wildlife crossings have worked elsewhere in the country.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife website, ocelots are considered by many as one of America's most beautiful cats and no two are alike, with each having their own distinct markings.

"I really take it personally," Swarts said about each time an ocelot is killed. "I'm hoping I won't have to feel that in the future, certainly not at the levels we've seen."

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This article is courtesy of KSAT-TV.