Tex-Mex wildcats, bird-watching towns and litigation may hamper the Department of Homeland Security's plans for a border fence in south Texas.
The barrier, currently under construction, will constitute more of a solid wall than a fence — "basically an impermeable concrete wall that is over 12 feet tall," in the words of José Viramontes, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman.
Along the Rio Grande, the wall will pass through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, as well as through the migratory corridor of the ocelot, a small wild cat listed as endangered. It could also disrupt the migration of the likewise-endangered jaguarundi, a small feral cat resembling a cross between a cougar and a ferret. Coyotes, armadillos, bobcats and other more commonly seen mammals may be affected, too.
Citing the effects on native animals, federal wildlife officials have withheld their endorsement of the barrier — saying, in essence, no se puede ("it can't be done").
"We live in an area where 95 percent of the habitat or the brush has been cleared, for the purposes of agriculture, since the 1930s," said Nancy Brown, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's South Texas Refuge Complex. "In the last 15 to 20 years, the folks in this area have realized that there's real value in maintaining this brush for the wildlife."
In the end, that argument may not matter: The Secure Fence Act of 2006 authorizes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to issue waivers for border fence construction overruling environmental and land-management regulations. The DHS has been so gung-ho about pushing a border fence through that a week ago, a group of landowners calling themselves the Texas Border Coalition sued the DHS, saying it didn't follow due process in informing residents of their rights in negotiating prices for land seized by the department.
Regarding the barrier's effects on habitat, DHS spokeswoman Laura Keener said in a statement that the department "remains deeply committed" to ensuring that "impacts to the environment, wildlife, and cultural and historic artifacts are analyzed and minimized."
But she also reiterated the DHS' prime concern: "Criminal activity at the border does not stop for endless debate or protracted litigation."
Veterinarian Steven Bentsen is a hunter, angler and nature photographer in his spare time, but also owns and operates Dos Venadas, a ranch 20 miles north of Rio Grande City.
"I have mixed feelings about the wall," Bentsen said. "On one hand, as a land owner who has problems with illegal aliens on my property and as a taxpayer who sees the effect on our economy, I see the need to control our illegal immigration problem. On the other hand, as a nature lover, I really hate to see this wall go up. I do feel the wall is going to have an adverse effect on the economy and on the river as a resource for a hunter, a fisher — for anybody who uses it."
Bentsen runs Dos Venadas as a haven for nature photographers, occasionally renting it out for visiting workshops. Many nearby land owners, he said, see illegal aliens pass through their property. While some conduct themselves peacefully, some tear down fences, break water lines and occasionally do bodily harm to the locals.
"When I grew up down here, it was not unusual to see two to three illegals passing through the area," Bentsen said. "But now they're passing through in groups of 60 and 70. Back then they were almost always from Mexico. Now they're from all over the world."
Hunting largely unharmed
Pete Moore, a South Padre Island attorney by day, is also a hunter and the president of the Valley Sportsmen Club. He expects the fence will hurt fishing access more than it will affect hunting, confined mostly to doves.
"I don't think the wall is gonna have much effect on hunting, but it will have a tremendously negative effect on our wildlife," Moore said, adding, "If you're a fisherman in the river, I would think it would be impossible to do that."
Fishing on the Rio Grande will be challenged, to say the least, when there's 12-foot wall between its banks and Texas.
Moore is a member of the South Padre Island Economic Development Corporation. South Padre Island is building a bird-watching and nature center, as birding is a major draw for their tourism-oriented economy. In addition to the spring break throngs lining south Texas beaches every year, bird watchers also flock to the Rio Grande Valley to see birds not found anywhere else on the planet.
The small border town of Roma, for one, is betting on the red-billed pigeon to draw bird-watchers from around the globe. Three other species found only in southern Texas — the brown jay, the green jay and the chachalaca — add to the appeal of a largely impoverished area.
About a year ago, Roma completed construction on the Roma Bluffs, its site for the World Birding Center, a network of bird-watching sweet spots in the region. A wall should have no significant impact on birds' migration patterns. However, Roma's investment in its aesthetic may suffer when the border fence is erected within plain sight of the bluffs.
'Not a new concept'
Barry Morrissey, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, stressed that those crossing into the United States illegally aren't preoccupied with preserving the environment.
Reducing crime, he said, is the reason for the fence, and in places such as San Diego, where a border fence has stood for 20 years, the barrier has done just that.
"We can see historically where that fence in San Diego has really made a significant dent in the illegal crossings in that area," he said. "We know that there is a deterrent effect to fencing. We also understand that it can be defeated. It's not an end-all in border security."