In an effort to restore habitat for the ocelot and build a partnership between landowners and wildlife advocates, Environmental Defense and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have signed a landmark 30 year Safe Harbor agreement for the endangered cat.
Landowners in a five county Texas region could be protected under this cooperative agreement if they choose to allow their land to be made more suitable for the endangered ocelot. The agreement covers Cameron, Hidalgo, Kenedy, Starr, and Willacy counties.
"Safe Harbor agreements are very important," said Environmental Defense Wildlife Biologist Linda Laack. "These agreements guarantee that landowners won't face future regulatory restrictions by making their land more inviting to endangered wildlife. It's rewarding a good deed with protection instead of restrictions. The national safe harbor model has been a proven success."
The first Safe Harbor agreement was established in 1995 in the Sandhills of North Carolina and proved beneficial to the red-cockaded woodpecker. By the 10th anniversary of Safe Harbor program, 327 landowners had signed up to be part of 31 different agreements in 17 states protecting more than 3.5 million acres of habitat for 35 different species across the country.
Known to once have roamed Texas and neighboring states, there are fewer than 100 ocelots left in the United States, all of which live along the south Texas coast. Between 30 and 40 of these live on or around the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. The 65,000 acre refuge is home to nine endangered or threatened species.
"The primary objective of a Safe Harbor agreement is to encourage private landowners to voluntarily create and restore habitat where none previously existed or where development threatens the ocelot's livelihood," said Dr. Benjamin N. Tuggle, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Regional Director.
Environmental Defense will be authorized to issue certificates of inclusion to landowners who agree to abide by the agreement's terms and conditions by developing habitat for the ocelot, while not giving up their rights to future development.
"Private land is a primary habitat for many endangered species," said Tuggle. "Conservationists rely on the non-federal lands as well as government supported wildlife preserves and refuges to help protect species such as the ocelot. Landowners must feel comfortable in allowing endangered species onto their lands. This agreement allows that to happen."
To be eligible for a Safe Harbor agreement, landowners must have habitat or potential habitat for a federally-listed endangered or threatened species in their area. By agreeing to make land improvements such as planting vegetation and installing watering systems to ensure plant development, landowners will receive financial and technical support.
"We have already planted thornscrub seedlings on about 600 acres of private land in the Rio Grande Valley as part of our ongoing effort to increase useable habitat for the ocelot in Texas," Environmental Defense wildlife specialist Karen Chapman said. "This is an exciting step forward. For the next 30 years, and hopefully beyond, there will be a concerted effort to bring back the ocelot."
As the agent overseeing the agreement, Environmental Defense and its staff of wildlife experts and biologists will work closely with applicant landowners to develop ocelot habitat that will also provide a natural safe place for other south Texas wildlife. The group will help develop a restoration plan as well as monitor progress of the habitat's development and use by ocelots.
"Building partnerships between those who work the land and those who care so much about protecting it is important to our mission at Environmental Defense," said Laack. "This is a solution for protecting the ocelot, but also a model for how government agencies, landowners and environmentalists can work together to achieve common goals. It's a win for everyone involved."
There are few limits on what kind of landowner can participate. Farmers, forest landowners, resort owners, residential and corporate land owners can all get involved in these projects.
"A major problem facing the endangered ocelot is loss of habitat" said Laack. "Endangered species such as the ocelot benefit from creating new habitat in Texas. Privately owned land provides an extension of territory that can help the ocelot to increase its population. This sort of agreement helps the ocelot because it gives them a place to live where they are protected and allowed to flourish and grow as a species."
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