Running for cover on the Rio Grande

  • SELDOM SEEN: Ocelot

    USFWS photo
  • PEARL OF THE RIVER: Photographers at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

    Larry Ditt photo, SANWR

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

LOWER RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas - Spanish explorers who came here in the 16th century found a jungle of cedar elm and sugar hackberry hung with moss. They called the river Rio de las Palmas, the River of Palms, because of the sabal palm trees that lined the river's mouth.

Today, most of those forests have been replaced with fields of sugar cane, cotton and citrus. On an autumn afternoon, roadside stands boast Texas produce. Tractors prepare fields for planting. Crop dusters buzz overhead, trailing white clouds of pesticide.

Lately, urban and industrial development in the valley has also been booming. With Central and South Americans coming north to work, and snowbirds coming south to take advantage of the low cost of living and the mild weather, the valley has one of the fastest-growing populations in the country.

Still, between the farms and the factories, the trailer parks and the burgeoning urban centers such as McAllen-Harlingen and Brownsville, a few pockets of undeveloped habitat persist. Ocelot and jaguarundi, seldom-seen wildcats protected under the Endangered Species Act, live in the area, as do state species of concern such as the Texas indigo snake. Nearly three-quarters of the bird species found in the United States migrate through the valley, making the Lower Rio Grande a magnet for bird-watchers the world over.

"This is a region of enormous biodiversity," says Mary Lou Campbell, who heads the local Frontera Audubon chapter based in the tiny town of Mercedes. "It's a meeting place between tropical and subtropical ecosystems, and serves as a last frontier for many of these species."

These fragments of wildlife habitat, however, are under enormous pressure. Texas is not a public-lands state (nearly 97 percent is held in private hands), so federal and state agencies and conservationists are scrambling to buy up pristine land. In this fast-changing border region, where scientists estimate that only 5 percent of the native forest remains, it's a race against time.

Scrambling for scraps

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has led conservation efforts here. The agency established the 2,000-acre Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in 1943. Today, Santa Ana serves as the headquarters for the 150,000-acre South Texas National Wildlife Refuge Complex, sometimes referred to as the "string of pearls" refuge because it consists of several properties strung together by the Rio Grande and its tributaries.

In recent years, Fish and Wildlife officials have teamed up with The Nature Conservancy, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Audubon Society and other groups to create the Lower Rio Grande Valley acquisition program. Last year, Congress authorized the groups to add more than 100,000 acres to the complex, and allocated $5 million for land acquisition in 2002. Most of the acreage will be added to the Laguna Atascosa NWR, about 25 miles up the coast from Brownsville, home to between a third and half of the nation's entire ocelot population.

By linking coastal, upland and riparian habitat zones, biologists hope they can maintain a migration corridor that stretches down into Mexico, and stave off the "island effect," in which wildlife populations become isolated from one another, and more susceptible to extinction (HCN, 4/26/99: Can science heal the land?).

"Ideally, there will be connections everywhere," says Gary Stolz, a spokesman for the refuge complex. "It's an honest attempt at establishing a real ecosystem approach to managing wildlife refuges." He anticipates that it will be at least two decades before the acquisition program reaches its overall goals.

Conservation meets immigration

But the string of pearls, though protected from development, is vulnerable to another threat. Each night, hundreds of undocumented immigrants cross the river under the cover of darkness, hoping to elude the U.S. Border Patrol and find work in El Norte. Last year, U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 100,000 illegal immigrants on this stretch of the Rio Grande. Officials estimate another 50,000 migrants slipped through their nets.

"The volume of undocumented alien traffic coming through the refuge, and the volume of smuggled drugs is shocking," says Jeff Rupert, manager of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. These people leave piles of trash, cut trails and light campfires, he says. "Repairing fences and gates cut by smugglers, and locks that have been cut - it's a never-ending process."

Environmentalists argue that Border Patrol efforts to stem the tide of illegal immigration have only damaged the refuges further. The statewide "Operation Rio Grande" has included mowing thick brush along the river, building roads and erecting fences, and installing stadium-style lights on refuge lands.

In 1998, these concerns prompted the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife to sue the Border Patrol's parent agency, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. According to the lawsuit, the INS failed to consult with Fish and Wildlife officials, and failed to follow the appropriate procedures under the National Environmental Policy Act. These activities, local activists claim, could have especially negative effects on the ocelot and jaguarundi, nocturnal animals that prefer well-vegetated habitat.

"I don't think you have to be a rocket scientist to see that these lights and fences are harmful to wildlife," says Jim Chapman, a physician's assistant by day and conservationist with the Sierra Club by night.

For the time being, the lawsuit has been left pending while the INS goes through a formal consultation process with Fish and Wildlife. Although a draft Environmental Impact Statement due out last summer still has not been released, the INS has scaled back its efforts, especially on refuge lands.

Preparing the draft EIS has been "a learning experience," says Assistant Border Patrol Chief Rey Garza. "We've looked at how everything could be impacted, not just those cats, but birds and flora, as well as nearby communities," he says.

Chapman is skeptical that an agency infamous for its insensitivity to the environment can make an about face (HCN, 9/27/99: An Arizona mayor condemns the New West's thirst for servants). But Refuge Manager Rupert says the Border Patrol has been sensitive to his needs. "We really need the Border Patrol," says Rupert. "We don't have the law enforcement staff to do it ourselves."

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Dan Oko

High Country News Classifieds