Friday, August 7, 2009

Border Fence Divides In Unexpected Ways

Winter Texans watch construction of the border wall at the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, which is also the site of the World Birding Center on the other side of the wall. Currently there is no access to the World Birding Center. Photo by Wendy Shattil.

Illegal immigration is often a hot issue in the political discussion, although it seems to come and go in its level of importance depending on what other national issues are being debated in the public arena. The "Border Fence" often is mentioned when one listens to the emotionally-charged rhetoric surrounding the control of illegal immigration. I have always had mixed feelings toward the concept of walling ourselves off from Mexico, or Canada for that matter, and have often doubted the effectiveness of the wall as a deterrent to illegal immigration. That was when I lived in Denver or NY and I can't say my opinion has changed since moving to South Padre Island.

However, living here, within 30 miles of the Mexican border, I can see that there are issues surrounding the building of a border wall that are rarely discussed or recognized outside the regions being directly affected. On a recent drive to Progresso, Mexico I noticed that much of the fence has been built, over or around the protests of many valley residents.

So today I was interested when Nancy Patterson posted a link on her Facebook page to a site discussing the impact of the fence on the bird and wildlife population in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. I can see you rolling your eyes and thinking, here we go again, some bird (probably the ubiquitous "common grackle") is going to hold up human development and jeopardize homeland security.

But, on South Padre Island, bird watching is one of the things that draws visitors to our sandbar. The Texas Gulf Coast is part of the massive migratory path followed by many species of birds as they travel to and from their summer and winter habitats. The construction of a World Class Birding Center on the Island is just one example illustrating how important our wildlife is to the economic well-being of this resort community.

Wading birds continue to utilize wetlands that provide a food source if no further disruption occurs. This barrier fence is near the Progresso border crossing in Hidalgo County. Photo by Wendy Shattil.

The article, written by Hugh Powell for the online newsletter of the Cornell School of Ornithology, All about Birds, states:
The U.S.-Mexico border in southern Texas is a busy place. The wide, flat streets of Brownsville, Harlingen, McAllen, and (just across the Rio Grande) Matamoros teem with dusty pickups, farm stands, tiny Tex-Mex restaurants, and more than 700,000 people. The region is a hotbed for beautiful and coveted birds, too: 516 species flit through the area’s distinctive mesquite, marshy resacas, and parched arroyos.
I was surprised to learn from this article that the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas is consistently listed as being one of the top three busiest of the Border Patrol’s 20 sectors.

Powell continues:
By early 2009, just 70 miles remained to be built, most of it in the Rio Grande Valley. Construction is proceeding over the objections of local residents, who have claimed that the fence restricts friendly relations with Mexico, destroys swaths of their land, and sometimes strands their own houses on the south side of the fence

Partly because of the Rio Grande’s meandering route out to the Gulf of Mexico, planners routed the fence up to 2 miles north of the river, shortcutting the wider arcs. Nearly 200 landowners hold property within that narrow strip. Some have found their driveways cut off from the rest of the United States. Farmers have lost access to fields, and livestock have been cut off from river water. Until a recent agreement, the University of Texas at Brownsville faced the prospect of the fence dividing their campus in two.

These same problems confront the birds and other animals that call the region home. There’s very little natural habitat left to begin with. Most of the 1.5-million-acre Rio Grande Valley has been converted into farmlands and homes. What’s left over are small patches of green space scattered over 200 miles.

More than 100 of these remnants totaling about 90,000 acres are now protected as the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the result of three decades of work and planning by land managers. The border fence, its access roads, and the associated construction areas cross these parcels in a half-dozen places, cutting slices from what habitat remains.

Perhaps more problematic for wildlife is the way the fence blocks movement between the few patches that can support them. Animals whose range barely juts into the U.S. may find themselves cut off from relatives, prospective mates, and suitable empty territories. Many terrestrial animals can’t get around or over the fence, and are more vulnerable to predators on its access roads. While birds might seem to have an easier time going over the fence, research has shown that many forest birds are extremely reluctant to cross gaps of unfamiliar or open habitat.

In this video public outreach specialist Nancy Brown introduces the Santa Ana National Widlife Refuge and some of the lower Rio Grande Valley's most notable birds. She outlines some of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ecological concerns about the U.S.-Mexico border fence's possible effects.

Pictures are from the International League of Conservation Photographers

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