Monday, May 21, 2007

Border Control and Wildlife

Recent debates over the problem of illegal immigration along the southern border have raised concerns for the future of many refuges and conservation areas along the border.

These are some of the natural wonders in the Rio Grande Valley that Brown and other wildlife enthusiasts fear could be spoiled by the fences and adjacent roads the U.S. government plans to erect along the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants and smugglers.

Environmentalists have spent decades acquiring and preserving 90,000 riverfront acres of Texas scrub and forest and protecting their wildlife. Now they fear the hundreds of miles of border fences will undo their work and kill some land animals by cutting them off from the Rio Grande, the only source of fresh water.
A fence could also prevent the ocelots and other animals from swimming across the water to mate with partners on the other side.
These are not idle concerns:
While the Department of Homeland Security said it has not made any final decisions on where the fence will go, meetings this week with the Border Patrol have wildlife officials convinced that some of the 70 miles planned for the Rio Grande Valley will be erected on the string of wildlife refuges along the border.

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said environmental concerns will be taken into account in the final decisions. But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has used his authority to waive environmental regulations for security reasons in other states, and Knocke said he would do so in the Rio Grande Valley if necessary.
Erecting a fence through wildlife refuges may be economically unwise. Ecotourism is a major part of the local economy in southern Texas because the region hosts a mix of species that is unique within the United States. Most serious North American listers will make a trip to the region if they have the opportunity, and that means money for local businesses. Over the last few decades, the federal government has spent tens of millions of dollars restoring wetlands and other riverine habitats along the Rio Grande Valley. All that work would be undone if a wide swath were bulldozed through the refuges and a wall erected to block access to the river.

Of course, a border fence is not the only threat to wildlife and habitats that results from the illegal immigration problem. The current situation, in which migrants pass through unguarded portions of the border results in trash being left in conservation areas and habitat being trampled by foot or by vehicle. One could make an argument that stopping the flow of immigrants through those areas would help to conserve certain habitats and the animals that live there. However, it seems unlikely to me that such gains would outweigh the potential destruction of riverine habitats and blockage of land migration routes.