One of the rarest and most striking wild cats in the United States is getting a helping hand in South Texas. 

Eighty or fewer ocelots – ornately spotted middle-weight felids resembling undersized, big-eyed jaguars – inhabit the far south of the Lone Star State. Long gone from its former range in Arkansas and Louisiana, and phantom-level scarce in Arizona, the species is making its last stand in the South Texas plains.

But the unique brush country here has become rarer and more fragmented in the face of agriculture and urbanisation, whittling down the ocelots' favoured habitat to perhaps one percent of South Texas. And these days, the cats face another nasty threat: getting squashed on the region's busy highways. Over the past couple of decades, about half of all ocelot mortalities in the state have come as roadkill, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

A male ocelot killed on a Texas highway this January. Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service

For such a critically small population, the road deaths are a big problem. In an especially dismal stretch between June 2015 and April 2016, seven ocelots were struck by cars in three adjoining South Texas counties. 

Now, the Texas Department of Transportation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are teaming up to make some of the offending roadways a little more feline-friendly. The agencies are installing a dozen highway underpasses along two highways in the vicinity of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, the most important remaining ocelot stronghold in the state. The crossings, slated to be finished by March 2017 at a price tag of $8 million, will enhance State Highway 106, which cuts through the refuge, and State Highway 100, which borders it (and which saw an ocelot death as recently as April 10 of this year).

"This is new terrain for us, since wildlife crossings have not really been built in ocelot habitat before," said Hilary Swarts, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist studying Laguna Atascosa ocelots, in a press release quoted by the Nature Conservancy. "It will be very interesting to see what our wildlife crossing monitoring program reveals about when and how ocelots and other wildlife use the newly installed crossings."

The underpasses will be broad enough to offer an approaching ocelot an enticing view of the other side, while chain-link fencing will funnel the animals toward the portals. The cats will need the encouragement, according to Swarts. "We can't put up a sign saying, 'Cross here, cross here,'" she told San Antonio's KSAT 12.

Construction on an ocelot wildlife crossing in Cameron County, Texas. Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service

A stone's throw from the Mexico line, Laguna Atascosa is the region's biggest swath of protected native habitat, and its tangled thorn wood – virtually impenetrable to human beings – makes for the perfect ocelot digs. But things are getting a little crowded for the resident population, which means young cats must brave suboptimal habitat (and those lethal thoroughfares) to find new territory.

The other significant ocelot population in the state lies about 30 miles north of Laguna Atascosa on private ranchland. As Defenders of Wildlife noted in a recent blog post, connecting these two populations – and, ideally, linking them by brushland corridors to Mexican ocelots – may be the only hope for the long-term survival of the species in Texas. Building underpasses is just one part of the solution; restoring thornscrub on either side of the border is just as critical. Public and private collaboration is also essential to expand the cats' habitat.

The South Texas thornscrub also serves as sanctuary for another rare borderland cat: the Gulf Coast jaguarundi. For both animals (not to mention jaguars farther west in New Mexico and Arizona) the future looks bleak if plans to install a wall along the US-Mexico border – which President-elect Donald Trump made one of his defining campaign promises – get the green light.

For Swarts, the ocelot highway deaths have been devastating, but she's hopeful the underpasses will make a difference. "I really take it personally. I'm hoping I won't have to feel that in the future, certainly not at the levels we've seen," she told KSAT 12.

Meanwhile, take a gander at the Laguna Atoscosa National Wildlife Refuge ocelot gallery (which has kitten shots, mind you!) for a unique look at the painted cat doing its thing in the wild subtropical thickets of South Texas.


Top header image: Shutterstock