McALLEN, Texas -- Not even the legal equivalent of a fastball under the chin could stop a Texas pipeline builder from clearing acres of brush that Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Josh Beckett claims is critical habitat for the endangered ocelot.
A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in Laredo by two of Beckett's companies asks a judge to stop any further work on the natural gas pipeline and specify what the builder must do under the Endangered Species Act. The companies filed a motion for a temporary restraining order Wednesday that included a statement from Beckett describing two occasions when he saw what he believes were ocelots.
But the clearing of about 40 acres of thick native scrub on a 7,000-acre hunting ranch about 100 miles southwest of San Antonio was finished earlier this month despite a warning Beckett's lawyers sent to Eagle Ford Midstream LP and its parent NET Midstream in August.
The pipeline company had obtained an easement across Beckett's Herradura Ranch in state court, according to the lawsuit. Beckett Ventures Inc. and Hall of Fame Land Ventures LP claim that they urged the company to choose a shorter, direct path rather than the diagonal swath that was cleared.
"Plaintiffs have attempted repeatedly, and failed, to persuade defendants to adopt an environmentally responsible route that will not cause a prohibited `take' of the endangered ocelot, which has been spotted on the ranch and which has extensive habitat on the ranch," according to the motion filed Wednesday.
A phone message left with Eagle Ford Midstream's parent company wasn't immediately returned.
But the company filed a response with the court Wednesday, arguing that the hunting ranch's activity posed a greater threat than their pipeline. They pointed out that a state court denied Beckett's similar request to halt their project earlier this month.
Jim Blackburn, who filed the lawsuit, said Beckett's companies went to state court first because the waiting period for federal jurisdiction under the Endangered Species Act hadn't passed before Eagle Ford Midstream started clearing land. He thinks Eagle Ford intentionally destroyed the habitat during that waiting period.
"We were trying to do everything we could to stop them from clearing the vegetation," Blackburn said.
Eagle Ford Midstream noted that e-mails it received from Beckett's lawyers in April requested an alternative route because of the impact on an irrigation system and the ranch's hunting business with no mention of endangered species.
"The protection of the ocelot was merely a sham to leverage additional money from (Eagle-Ford Midstream) in exchange for an easement," the response said.
Beckett was bow hunting from a camouflaged blind on the ranch six years ago when he saw a "very stealthy" cat with unusual markings come through a fence and walk down a drainage, according to statement filed with the court Wednesday.
Two years later, he saw an identical spotted cat followed by a kitten, again while bow hunting. Beckett said he is familiar with the more common bobcat and was confident it was not a bobcat. His father saw an adult and kitten that he believed were ocelots on the ranch in 2010.
Workers cleared easement for the pipeline on the ranch on Oct. 3 and 4, along with additional temporary work space, the lawsuit said. Eagle Ford Midstream said Beckett overstated the amount of land cleared. The pipeline is supposed to run 102 miles.
The pipeline company's environmental consultant evaluated the right-of-way for the project and determined the land "does not exhibit the necessary density, coverage or structure generally described for potential ocelot habitat." It went on to say that the nearest known population of ocelots was 120 miles away in Kenedy County.
Based on that information, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined no further action was required.
Beckett's team disagreed. It brought, Michael Tewes, a wild cat expert from nearby Texas A&M University-Kingsville to the ranch days after the clearing.
"In short, suitable ocelot habitat exists on the Herradura Ranch," Tewes wrote in a brief report filed with the court. "It exists along or near the pipeline right-of-way. If ocelots occupied this habitat when it was cleared for the pipeline, then they were affected by such action. Also, noise and activity on the proposed pipeline could affect ocelots adjacent or near the pipeline."
David Frederick, who retired after a 32-year career with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and is now a consultant and professional hunter, also filed a report based on a June visit to the ranch. He said there was suitable ocelot habitat and he found big cat tracks in dried mud along a drainage.
There may only be about 50 ocelots remaining in Texas.
Sonia Najera, a program manager with The Nature Conservancy in South Texas, said loss of habitat is one of the most significant issues facing ocelots. What habitat remains is more and more isolated and ocelots have to trek long distances, often crossing highways and road networks, she said.
"They will travel along drainages, fence rows that are wooded, wooded corridors," she said. "They do need cover. And it's not just ocelots, it's most wildlife in general."
Najera was not familiar with the Herradura Ranch or the lawsuit.
The Herradura Ranch offers luxurious multi-day guided hunting trips for white-tail deer, doves, quail, javelina, coyote and bobcat. Phone messages left there were not immediately returned.