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RAYMONDVILLE, Texas (AP) - Geographically, El Tecolote Ranch sits in the middle of nowhere - more than five miles from the nearest paved road. It is an hour's drive north of Brownsville and about four hours south of San Antonio. It is a place found by landmarks, not by maps.

Yet the large swath of long grasses, mesquite trees and night-blooming cacti is at the center of an ambitious effort to bring a wild cat back from the brink of extinction.

The federal government recently spent $3 million to purchase 1,119 acres of the well-managed land for the benefit of the ocelot after damaging the endangered species' habitat to build 70 miles of fences along the border with Mexico.

The money came from $50 million set aside by the Department of Homeland Security to make up for installing the border fences through wilderness and protected lands. The 18-foot-high steel posts between Falcon Dam and the Gulf of Mexico were intended to deter illegal immigration and drug trafficking, but they also blocked the ocelot from passing freely through its historic range.

The newly purchased land will become part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a 90,000-acre patchwork of tracts that were purchased over the last 30 years to become corridors for the ocelot and other wildlife to travel.

This is another piece of the puzzle for us, Robert Jess, who manages the refuge for the Fish and Wildlife Service, told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1nOi8IP).

There is a sparse beauty to the Rio Grande Valley. The land is flat, with tall grasses, thickets of woody brush and fields of corn and cotton spread over its sandy floor. Palm trees sway in the afternoon breezes.

Wind turbines, as long as a football field is wide, provide a rare break from the monotony along U.S. 77, the four-lane highway that runs in a straight line through the valley.

However beautiful, the landscape is biologically unique. It is known as the Tamaulipan thornscrub ecosystem - a binational region with a rich diversity of wildlife, from the Texas tortoise to the northern aplomado falcon to the ocelot.

Farmers, ranchers and developers have cleared an estimated 95 percent of the land since the early 1990s. With the landscape changes, some species are disappearing as well.

For example, scientists estimate that the ocelot's American population has dwindled to no more than 80. The dappled creature, twice the size of the typical household feline, inhabits brushy areas, where it can sleep by day and hunt at night. The cat travels up to five miles at a time and is able to swim across the Rio Grande.

Federal biologists pay close attention to the ocelot because the species' well-being reflects the overall health of the ecosystem, which stretches from northern Mexico to South Texas.

It's unclear how the fences - built along the border between 2009 and 2012 - have transformed an already fragmented landscape. But biologists, environmentalists and federal and state officials said it's almost certain that the barriers have created problems for the ocelot and other wildlife.

The fences prevent many species from roaming their historic ranges, said Laura Huffman, who leads the Texas office of the Nature Conservancy. There is nothing that changes about this landscape because of a political boundary.

The conservancy's Southmost Preserve sits at the very bottom of the U.S., along a winding bend of the Rio Grande. Because of the 1,034-acre property's odd shape, it's possible to stand along the river and look north - yes, north - into Mexico.

The group purchased the former cropland in 1999 with plans to make it a living reminder of a once common landscape. It's home to one of the last stands of sabal palms in the country, as well as the brushy habitat favored by the ocelot and jaguarundi, another small cat that is federally protected.

The government's posts now slice through the preserve. The bottom of the fence has 8-by-11-inch openings every 500 feet to allow the movement of small animals, but there is no evidence that they are using the holes.

Max Pons, the preserve's manager, tried several times to install cameras to monitor the openings, but the equipment was either damaged or stolen. He also sprayed fox and skunk scents at the holes to help critters find them, but that also didn't work.

Pons, however, has seen coyotes and bobcats use gaps in the fences for cars and trucks as their own highways.

The preserve wasn't the only protected land harmed by the security barrier. The fences also are located on federal lands, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department refuge and the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary, a popular resting place for migratory birds.

As compensation for the environmental harm, the Department of Homeland Security five years ago pledged up to $50 million for conservation efforts in states along the Mexican border. So far, it has spent $18 million on 10 projects, including the purchase of a piece of the El Tecolote Ranch for the ocelot. It's the only Texas project to receive funding.

The acquisition of the ranchland was initiated by the Nature Conservancy, which bought the property at a below-market price with the intent of selling it to the Fish and Wildlife Service once federal money became available.

Huffman said the group is trying to protect areas in the same landscape as the Southmost Preserve. Once we knew there would be mitigation money, this was our first choice, she said of the ranchland.

Nearly 20 years ago, the land was Karen Hunke's first choice, too. Hunke and her husband, Phil, a dentist from McAllen, wanted a place that wasn't too close to a city or even a major road.

They named it after the great horned owl she saw the first time she walked the property. El Tecolote is Spanish for the owl.

The name also reflected their goal for the heavily grazed land - to restore it to its natural state for the benefit of wildlife. They reduced the cattle herd and rotated where they grazed, replanted native grasses and trees and used planned fires to help thin overgrown areas.

The cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl, which is on the state's list of threatened species, has thrived in the trees here. Biologists have seen other rare species on the ranch, including the sheep frog and northern cat-eyed snake.

Even the elusive ocelot has appeared three times on the property during the Hunkes' ownership.

It's not beautiful in the same way mountains are beautiful, Karen Hunke said during a recent tour of the 4,000-acre ranch. But it's a beautiful place, and the critters here are unlike any other place. I love to walk around because you never know what you will see.

Despite their love of the land, the Hunkes are spending less time at the ranch these days, and their two daughters don't live close enough to be actively involved in managing it. So, the couple decided to sell at least part of it - but only to someone willing to continue their work.

That desire led them to the Nature Conservancy and ultimately the Fish and Wildlife Service, which will make the land part of the larger wildlife refuge in the valley.

The best thing you can do for a piece of land, Hunke said, is to let it be natural.

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