Border Fence May Destroy Wildlife Habitat

U.S. Fish and Wildlife services spent $80 million to reclaim wildlife habitat in South Texas. Now Homeland Security is ready to wipe that out.

Assured that yes, they do say exactly that, Knocke responds: "I would say that's regrettable and inaccurate, because the facts are we have been clear and consistent."

While stressing the DHS commitment to working with South Texas officials, Knocke is not at all reluctant to drop the hammer.

"The fact remains that the federal government is first and foremost responsible for securing our borders, and we have a mandate from the American public and from Congress to get that job done at our borders."

...when a flock of birds overhead captures everyone's attention. A border fence would be an "environmental catastrophe," he says.
Photos by Margaret Downing
...when a flock of birds overhead captures everyone's attention. A border fence would be an "environmental catastrophe," he says.
Farmers are concerned that they'll be cut off from their pump stations. Most Valley irrigation comes from the Rio Grande.
Margaret Downing
Farmers are concerned that they'll be cut off from their pump stations. Most Valley irrigation comes from the Rio Grande.

"One way that we do that is through border infrastructure, be it through traditional fencing, be it through vehicular barriers, or be it through advanced technologies."

It is standard policy to do environmental assessments in Texas, unless, of course, Chertoff decides the fence is more important, Knocke says.

Every October, Kenneth Merritt, project leader for the South Texas Refuge complex with the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife Services, oversees the Rio Reforestation Project. For more than ten years, anywhere from 1,000 to 1,600 volunteers have come in to put more native plants in the wildlife habitat. They have restored 1,000 acres of brush land per year.

Merritt doesn't know what final form the federal plans will take, but says, "I don't think anybody thinks that the fence isn't going in."

He would rather see it placed away from the river and north of the levee system that runs along the lower Valley where there isn't as much habitat.

He says he tries to explain to people that the habitat areas in South Texas are very small — others estimated them at 5 to 7 percent of the land — and surrounded by residential and business development. When you lose a habitat along the Canadian border, there's still hundreds if not thousands of square miles of habitat remaining.

In South Texas, "you don't have much to begin with, and when you cut it in half with a fence, you're going to have some definite wildlife problems," he says.

Asked if he's protested the fence plans, Merritt says, "We don't protest because we're part of the federal government, but we've had a meeting last week with Border Patrol, Department of Homeland Security. We've expressed the issues that we have."

Usually, if there's a request for an activity or facility on the refuge, Fish & Wildlife goes through a process called "compatibility" that's tied back to the refuge purpose, Merritt says. "It would be kind of premature for me to say there is no way this is compatible. I might be thinking that, but at the same time I have to go through a process."

He's been told that it is likely that Michael Chertoff is going to waive any environmental studies. If the fence is approved, Fish & Wildlife would retain title to the land but issue a right-of-way permit to DHS that would allow it to operate on the land.

The area has three national wildlife refuges. Laguna Atascosa is not on the border. Santa Ana is on the river. And the Lower Rio Grande Valley Natural Wildlife Refuge snakes along the river from Falcon Dam to Boca Chica, which, depending on whether you're following the river or the road, is somewhere between 150 and 275 miles.

Neither Laguna Atascosa nor Santa Ana is likely to be touched by a fence, Merritt says. But it still would affect Santa Ana, a pivotal birding refuge, because that refuge will get more foot traffic east and west of fences extending out from the international bridges, Merritt says. He doesn't see the number of illegal crossings decreasing, just the whereabouts, and he dreads the "tons of trash" that he says crossers leave behind.

"I don't know any wildlife manager — just from the wildlife perspective now — fences are not something that any of us are for."

John McClung works for the fruit and vegetable industry with the local produce association, and he's a board member of the Friends of Santa Ana and the Wildlife Corridor. He's not a fan of Homeland Security.

"The Department of Homeland Security has been so reticent, so unwilling to share accurate, complete plans, that all of us are operating in something of an informational vacuum. We had been assured that the Department of Homeland Security would get input from locals...and they have been thus far just supremely arrogant in not doing that."

Two issues seem likely to be dominant for the farmers and shippers.

One has to do with water access. Almost all irrigation is done with water out of the Rio Grande. "If we can't get access to that water, then we have a huge problem. Because almost all fruit and vegetable crops are irrigated. Most places in the country, a lot of the irrigation is done with well water. That's not the case here," McClung says.

"I heard one plan from one Border Patrol guy, a low-level guy, well, he said we'll put gates in the fence, we'll open them at 8:30 in the morning for an hour or two. Well, jeez, Louise, all that reflects is a wanton lack of understanding of how agriculture works."

The other issue is land condemnation. Most of the land in South Texas, even down to the river, is privately owned.

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