Ocelot "Spotted" In Arizona

Unless you study wildlife in the southwest, you may be asking, what's an ocelot? It's an elusive little spotted cat that once inhabited the southern U.S. What the population was like is hard to say in terms of how many there were or what their exact range was. Records are, well, spotty.

Back in the days when Arizona Game and Fish was doling out bounties for what they considered "worthless predators," they called the native wildcats by so many different names that its hard to tell what was what. In a book on the history of the management of the Kaibab deer herd, there are lists itemizing the number of bounties paid per feline "species." The confusing thing is that the "species" list included not only the standard known cats like mountain lion, bobcat, and jaguar, but several additional names like wildcat, leopard, tiger, and more appear. Huh? How many cats, er, how many species were here? Dunno. But we do know that ocelots once inhabited parts of Arizona, and appears to be making a comeback.

The Sky Island Alliance is a Tucson-based regional conservation group that has been monitoring wildlife and their movements through non-invasive methods like camera trapping. This past November, one of their cameras captured an ocelot --the first modern and verifiable record of this elusive wild feline alive in Arizona. According to a member of the ocelot recovery team, the cat that was spotted is likely a disperser from a nearby population. "Nearby" is relative--the closest known population is over 100 km south of the border.

In the United States, the ocelot's current distribution is severely limited. Up until this finding, they were known to remain only in small areas of very dense thicket in 2 counties in South Texas. While they were designated an endangered species in 1972, the ocelot's continued presence in the U.S. has been questionable enough that critical habitat has never been designated. Their numbers were reduced by predator control programs, and according to Wikipedia-- as a result of dogs, being shot by ranchers, loss of habitat, and the introduction of highways.

Sky Island Alliance biologist Jessica Lamberton spells out the significance of this rare spotting- “That an ocelot is here in Arizona tells us that the habitat is healthy, and the connection between healthy landscapes is still a possibility for ocelots and other species.” Go Cats!

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