Border Barricade Threatens Wildlife Corridor and 100 Million Dollar Investment

The border fence is coming to the Rio Grande Valley, and no matter where it goes wildlife will suffer from further fragmentation of dwindling habitat. As of this writing, Department of Homeland Security, DHS, officials are not revealing exactly where along the Rio Grande the fence or wall is going or precisely when and how it will be constructed. Some private landowners and United States Fish and Wildlife Service employees have been consulted, but no final plan has been provided. "So far the maps they have showed us are only tentative," said Ken Merritt, project leader of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) South Texas Refuge Complex.

Merritt could not confirm rumors that USFWS refuge lands along the river are being targeted first, but it is a distinct possibility. Federally owned property, such as the Valley's wildlife refuges, could be quickly cleared and fenced with minimal legal hurdles, while private lands would necessitate condemnation proceedings prior to fencing. The planned border wall to curtail illegal entry into the United States is part of the $7.6 billion Secure Border Initiative which consists of an array of fences, vehicle barriers, sensors, drone aircraft and thousands of additional Border patrol agents all designed to control the 2,000 miles of Southwest border by 2011.

"We have actually been contacted by the Corps of Engineers rather than DHS concerning the border fence," said Merritt. "We have been told that there is 86 miles of border fence coming to the Valley area along the river."

From Falcon Dam to the Gulf of Mexico, the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) preserves remnants of riparian habitat along the last 275 winding miles of the Rio Grande. Considered one of the most biologically diverse and critically endangered refuges in the nation, the protected lands are home to more than 1,000 varieties of plants, 700 vertebrate species (including some 500 birds) 300 plus species of butterflies and at least 20 threatened and endangered species. Officially established in 1979, the refuge is the cornerstone of efforts begun earlier in the decade to salvage a wildlife corridor of private, state and federal lands aimed at preserving what little remains of old growth woodlands along the Rio Grande.

The border barricade has also targeted private land that is part of the Valley's Wildlife Corridor. Noel Benavides of Roma was recently notified by authorities that land along the river that has been in his wife's family for eight generations is scheduled to be cleared for a road and fencing. "They are going to destroy habitat that has been there for generations, and it will never come back," Benavides said.

More than 95 percent of the native habitat in the Rio Grande Valley has been destroyed, with riverine woodlands being almost totally wiped out. However, after nearly 30 years of cooperative efforts by private citizens, local officials, state and federal agencies and politicians the LRGVNWR now encompasses more than 90,000 acres. The acreage is scattered across the four county area in 115 separate tracts that are essentially islands of habitat. Some property is miles from the river, but precious strips of woodlands dot the final stretch of the Rio Grande. Efforts are underway to replant corridors of native habitat to link the various tracts so wildlife can travel back and forth.

"About 30 percent of the refuge is on river bank and about 80 miles in total from Falcon Reservoir to the Gulf," said Merritt.

David Blankinship, retired lead biologist for the LRGVNWR, remembers vividly how many different people worked together thru the years to save what little remains of the Valley's vanishing wildlands in an unprecedented effort of community cooperation. "People from all walks of life came together, county officials, citizens and state and federal employees and so forth, because they all realized the importance of the Wildlife Corridor," Blankinship recalled. "It was the number one land acquisition priority for the USFWS for many years."

"As of the end of 2005, we have spent about 70 million dollars on the LRGVNWR," said Merritt. "That figure represents just land acquisition cost and does not take into account the infrastructure, operations and maintenance costs. If you add it all up, I am sure it is more than 100 million."

The refuge is still in the top ten of priority acquisitions, but money from Washington is in short supply for all branches of the Interior Department. The long standing goal of achieving 132,500 total acres between Falcon dam and the mouth of the river may take many more years.

"It is still so hard for us to believe, those of us who live here, that it could happen, that they would put up a fence," said Roy Rodriguez, a longtime supporter of the corridor and wildlife tour guide from Pharr. "It is possible that all these years and millions of dollars and millions of hours of volunteer time could go to waste as far as the Wildlife Corridor is concerned."

Retired Congressman Kika de la Garza from Mission is a staunch supporter of the Wildlife Corridor and was instrumental in securing federal funding for Valley wildlife refuges. "I always felt it was very important to protect our natural heritage," de la Garza said. "A lot of people from the Valley worked on it. They traveled to visit congress every year, and I worked on the Washington side of it."

However, de la Garza is not supportive of the proposed border fence. "Very respectfully, it is a dumb thing to do. It did not work in Berlin, and it is not going to work here."

"A fence would be very damaging to the whole idea of the wildlife corridor," Blankinship said. "You would isolate the habitat on the US side of the river from the habitat across the river. You would eliminate the interchange of wildlife from either side of the barrier."

"We are told it is a fence that is going to prevent pedestrian travel and of course vehicle travel," Merritt said. "We don't know the design and engineering stuff on this right now, but we understand DHS is working on those aspects."

The Department of Homeland Security has authority to supersede all environmental safeguards, and not even the presence of high profile endangered species like the ocelot are likely to be considered. The endangered cat has been monitored on refuge property in past years swimming the river to utilize both sides in its travels.

If construction of a fence, road and 150 foot wide accompanying swath of cleared brush is inevitable then the preference of USFWS biologists is to utilize the existing levee. "We would certainly be suggesting that in almost all cases," Merritt said.

However, even this site choice would seal off all wildlife on the north side of the fence from their life source the Rio Grande. In essence, it would be ceding everything on the south side of the levee back to Mexico and stranding all terrestrial wildlife on the north side without access to water.

Thousands of acres of farmland inside the levee would also become difficult to access, and a fence would become a barrier to flood control. A fence inside the levee would require substantial brush clearing in areas already mere strips in most places, but critically important as wildlife habitat and protection from erosion of the rivers banks. A fence near the river would soon erode as waters periodically rise.

"We are working very hard and so is our ecological services division who handles endangered species issues to make sure we give all the information to DHS they need to plan this thing," Merritt said. "Whatever ends up being out there, we want it to be as friendly as it can be to wildlife and the investment we have made here in the Valley."

"The ecosystem in the Valley has such tremendous diversity, and we almost lost it," Blankinship said. "We almost cleared it out. We have made great strides in trying to rebuild it, and it is an ongoing process, but this fence would deal a crippling blow if not a killing blow to all those efforts."

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore