On an 860,000-acre refuge, wildlife officers face a human torrent

  • John Schaefer's territory "big, lonely and dangerous" is southern Arizona's Cabez Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a major trail for border crossers and drug smugglers.

    JT Thomas
  • John Schaefer

    JT Thomas
  • Thirty miles west of Tucson, Border Patrol officers detain eight migrants who were concealed in the bed of a pickup. The Border Patrol has made more than 250,000 apprehensions along the border since Oct. 1; many of those apprehended have been caught multiple times.

    JT Thomas

Note: this article is one of several feature stories in a special issue about the West's immigration landscape.

CABEZA PRIETA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Arizona — Somewhere in these 860,000 acres, a lone Border Patrol agent is holding 28 illegal border crossers.

The call comes in over a brand-new truck radio, but the damned thing has stopped transmitting, so U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Officer John Schaefer can’t respond. "That’s so awesome that the radio broke," the 33-year-old says with a sardonic grin, as he scrambles to the roof of the Dodge pickup. With a hand-held radio, he assures the increasingly nervous Border Patrol agent that he’s on his way.

He climbs off the roof, jotting down GPS coordinates. The agent is more than an hour away, he guesses. He jumps into the truck, revs the engine, and tears off down the rough road.

Schaefer, a native of Prescott, Ariz., grew up wanting to be a Border Patrol agent. But two years of sitting in border checkpoints in Ajo, Ariz., watching cars drive past, changed his mind. So he turned his attention to Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, just up the road, where he could roam the desert freely. Now he’s one of only two officers covering this vast expanse of desert, which shares 56 miles of its border with Mexico.

Rumor has it that Edward Abbey is buried somewhere out here. The Cabeza Prieta of Abbey’s time, however, was quieter. While San Diego, Calif., and El Paso, Texas, were swamped with illegal border crossings 20 years ago, few dared face the heat and emptiness of the huge refuge. Abbey could backpack across his beloved Sonoran Desert for days without seeing another person.

But times have changed.

Schaefer’s colleagues in other wildlife refuges work to enforce the Endangered Species and Migratory Bird acts. Schaefer, however, is less concerned with the Cabeza’s rare Sonoran pronghorns and colonies of lesser long-nosed bats than with the human beings that aren’t supposed to be here. He spends most of his time assisting Border Patrol agents, rescuing immigrants who have lost their way in the scorching heat, or contending with armed drug smugglers.

The wind moaning through the lonely saguaros and volcanic rock can be intimidating. Other wildlife officers rarely, if ever, apply at Cabeza Prieta: The only people who go for the job these days are other former Border Patrol officers. For Schaefer, though, it’s a childhood dream come true.

"It’s a fantastic job. I get to control one of the largest chunks of wilderness in the Lower 48 states," he says. "This is more how the Border Patrol used to be."

Devil’s Road

A startled desert hare bursts from under the rusted husk of a Chevy Trailblazer axle-deep on the road, its windows shot out long ago. Schaefer’s truck slams across the rocks, engine roaring as it scrambles through ruts filled with light, airy soil that locals call moondust. The stuff rises like a thick fog, floating hundreds of feet into the air. "You should see what it’s like to chase someone through this shit," Schaefer yells.

In the mid-1990s, the United States began a concerted effort to stop illegal crossing by sealing the busiest sections of its border with Mexico. The Border Patrol added more agents and threw up fences, spotlights, and motion detectors in El Paso, San Diego and Nogales. The efforts worked locally. Overall, however, the flow of people crossing the border has increased. Last year, former Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner estimated that 450,000 succeed in crossing annually. And the empty sections of Arizona have borne the brunt, accounting for more than half of the U.S. Border Patrol’s apprehensions since 2004.

Cabeza Prieta and the neighboring Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and Organ Pipe National Monument have become major thoroughfares for undocumented immigrants flocking to jobs in the states. Border Patrol officers at the Ajo station pick up an average of 90 illegal crossers every day. And Cabeza Prieta Refuge Manager Roger Di Rosa estimates that every week, 1,000 cross the eastern portion of the Refuge alone.

It’s a long and sometimes deadly journey for the immigrants. The valleys in the refuge concentrate the intense heat, earning the historic Camino del Diablo, or Devil’s Road, through here its demonic name. Fourteen immigrants died along that trail four years ago. Hundreds more have died in the Arizona desert. "I’ve seen it get to 175 degrees. You drain your 100-ounce CamelBak in a matter of minutes, and your ears start ringing. But that doesn’t mean people won’t try to cross.

"It’s dropped somewhat in Cabeza Prieta this spring," Schaefer says. "It just shifted somewhere where it’s easier. It’ll shift back."

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