By Kayleigh Sommer
Every day, Cactus Creek Ranch owner Mary Jo Bogatto wakes up early and walks the three-mile research trail around her 400-acre property to make sure nothing’s out of the ordinary.
Along the trail are markers identifying red ant beds, which are protected on the ranch. The red ants are a food source for the horned lizards that run rampant on the ranch, which are also protected.
Bogatto said she has a great respect for nature so every animal that is on the property or wonders onto it is going to be protected.
“I was always taught to respect nature growing up and wildlife protection is a priority on this ranch,” she said.
Nestled close to the southwestern edge of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge off of Farm-to-Market Road 106, Cactus Creek Ranch has become a learning center for environmental conservation and the preservation of endangered wildlife species. Bogatto calls it a “living classroom” that creates a “living diary of the plants and animals and their diverse habitat.”
Bogatto started Cactus Creek Ranch, or CCR, in 1995 with only a few blades of grass and some local cacti. It currently consists of 400 acres and has been revamped into an ideal native habitat with nine man-made ponds.
Between 1996 and 1997, the Nature Conservancy planted 20,000 native plants, which now serve as a safe haven for many birds and other animals and insects, both indigenous and migratory.
Alligators, ocelots, bobcats, snakes, wild pigs and numerous species of birds and insects are just some of the types of animals that can be seen on the ranch. Bogatto said when you’re here you always have to be aware of your surroundings.
She notes with a touch of laughter that she is an “everything watcher.”
The ranch works with the Nature Conservatory and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and private donors. As a dedicated Partner in Wildlife, CCR’s habitat restoration has been undertaken through the direction of Wetland Habitat Alliance of Texas and the Nature Conservancy of Texas.
The ranch is a recipient of TPWD’s Lone Star Land Stewards Award and Bogatto has been honored by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality with its Texas Environmental Excellence Award in the individual category for her work to restore habitat.
Every effort has been made to protect and preserve endangered wildlife species and to create an environment that focuses on the best that Texas has to offer, Bogatto said.
She has made it her mission to educate the public on everything nature has to offer and also how to protect and take care of it.
With its extensive acreage and unique features, CCR serves as a rare and exceptional teaching tool in the study of plants and animals and their varied habitat, she said.
Another, equally important goal of CCR is to put conservation in the curriculum of private and public schools.
Bogatto said education is her passion and says conservation should be part of school courses.
In line with that philosophy, the ranch has established partnerships with Rio Hondo High School and Ed Downs Elementary School in San Benito for educational projects, including re-vegetation projects.
“Everything I’ve done has revolved around conservation,” she said.
In her efforts to get the ranch more attention and stay busy, Bogatto has developed new features for the ranch. Her latest is the design and construction of photo blinds for wheelchair-bound photojournalists, conservationists and bird and nature watchers along with their families and friends.
She is currently refurbishing a cabin for rent to give whoever stays there a camping experience without the hassle of sleeping outside. The cabin has running water, electricity, indoor plumbing and a kitchen.
“They call it glamping,” she said.
When she’s gone Bogatto hopes that her efforts are not wasted and that she can leave something behind for the next generation to cherish and take care of.
“One day I want to live in a tree house high in the trees, and then I can watch the sunrise,” she said.