Federal agents must abandon their vehicles and chase drug smugglers and illegal aliens on foot through 40 acres near the Mexican border because of a pond that is home to the endangered desert pupfish.
It’s part of the agreement between the Homeland Security and Interior departments on how best to protect the ecosystem, frustrating lawmakers who say it also prevents agents from conducting routine patrols.
Drug cartels and other criminals could care less about these so-called memos of understanding, or whether they are trampling through a protected species’ habitat, Rep. Rob Bishop (R.-Utah) told HUMAN EVENTS.
“They would just as soon eat an endangered species as protect it,” Bishop said.
Pupfish aren’t the only critters confounding the Border Patrol in its pursuit of illegal aliens. There’s also the Chiricahua leopard frog, Mexican spotted owl, lesser long-nosed bat and the Pima pineapple cactus.
And access isn’t just limited to buffer zones for endangered species, it includes entire “wilderness areas” designated by Congress and some areas of national parks and monuments.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits the Border Patrol from entering its 4.3 million acres in a vehicle or by helicopter. Nor can it put surveillance cameras in the area or build communication towers.
“If you ask the supervisors and managers if this has an impact on operations, they will tell you, ‘Hell yes,’ ” said Kent Lundgren, communications manager of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers.
The Border Patrol respects the desire of environmental groups and land managers to protect environmental species, Lundgren said.
“But along the border, national security and public safety ought to trump anything else,” Lundgren said.
They argue that border patrols can negatively affect the environment, including loss of foraging habitat and disturbance from nighttime lights and noise associated with construction of towers, border fences, generators and helicopter landings.
An October 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concedes “certain land management laws present some challenges to Border Patrol’s operations on federal lands, limiting to varying degrees the agency’s access to patrol and monitor some areas.”
“With limited access for patrols and monitoring, some illegal entries may go undetected,” the GAO said.
The GAO also acknowledges that the Border Patrol’s presence is “needed to protect natural and cultural resources on federal lands because, for instance, fewer illegal entries means less human traffic over environmentally sensitive areas.”
And ultimately, when the federal government has to choose between protecting the border and protecting the environment, it chooses the environment.
The two-inch, bluish pupfish lives in the Quitobaquito Pond and spring channel in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument west of Tucson, Ariz.
U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) vehicles have been reported numerous times for driving over a berm that impounds the pupfish pond.
“Driving on the berm could cause its partial collapse or deterioration,” according to a consultation document between the Border Patrol and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
“If the integrity of the berm is compromised, much or all of the pond could be lost if the berm collapses. Even if the berm does not collapse, driving on it could cause deterioration, resulting in materials spilling into the pond, decreasing its volume, reducing habitat for pupfish, and requiring additional work to repair and reinforce it,” the document says. “These activities would likely result in mortality of pupfish and, at least temporarily, reduce the population.”
The document also notes one incident when a border patrol agent drove an ATV over the channel several times. Although no damage was done, the Fish and Wildlife Service devised a scenario that could kill the fish.
“If the concrete channel was broken or damaged, water could be diverted from the channel, resulting in dewatering of the spring channel and possible lowering or drying of the pond. Pupfish inhabiting the channel downstream of the break could desiccate and die under this scenario,” the consultation memo says.
“A worse outcome would be if a USBP vehicle slid into the pond, either due to collapse of the berm or driving too close to the edge, followed by accidental slippage off the berm and into the pond. Contaminants in the form of oil or other vehicle fluids could cause mortality of pupfish, and again, any remedy of this situation would threaten the integrity of the berm and likely result in additional mortality of pupfish,” the consultation said.
Border Patrol agents are no longer allowed to drive motorized vehicles into the area unless the life or safety of an officer or cross-border violator (CBV) is in danger.
“USBP may access any portion of Quitobaquito by foot or on horseback at any time necessary to patrol or to pursue and apprehend cross-border violators,” the memo says. There are also strict conditions set on use of the horses, which must be given a “weed-free feed” so that their feces do not contaminate the ecosystem of the park.
If the horses are actually kept there, the Border Patrol must “avoid contamination of ground and surface waters by removing animal waste from areas where horses are housed and disposing of it at an appropriate waste facility,” the document says.
The next battle between the Border Patrol and environmentalists is brewing over an endangered bird species, the Southwestern willow flycatcher.
Environmentalists want the Border Patrol to scrap plans to mow vegetation four times a year along 91 miles of the Rio Grande because they say this and hundreds of other bird species are there.
The Border Patrol wants to keep the vegetation below two feet so officers can actually see illegal aliens crossing through the area.
Also along the Rio Grande in south Texas, the GAO said that border patrols and portable and permanent lights, along with clearing of vegetation, has “reduced the amount of habitat suitable for the endangered ocelot.”
Lawmakers are frustrated over the territorial battles between the government agencies that are charged with protecting the environment and protecting the border.
They say federal land managers are using environmental regulations to block the Border Patrol from accessing protected portions within 21 million acres on the southern border and 1,000 miles along the Canadian border.
The result is an escalation of violence throughout an area that is now open to criminals, drug smugglers, human traffickers and potential terrorists.
Congressional staffers say illegal aliens know exactly where the Border Patrol can and cannot patrol in their vehicles.
“National parks and forests have become some of the most dangerous and violent areas along the border, where shootings, robberies, rapes, murders, kidnappings and carjackings frequently occur,” according to a report by the House Committee on Natural Resources.
In March 2010, Arizona rancher Rob Krentz was shot and killed by someone who had illegally entered the country through the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge, the committee said.
Border Patrol Agent Luis Aguilar was killed by a hit-and-run driver who crossed the border though the Imperial Sand Dunes in January 2008, and a park ranger was shot and killed in 2002 while pursuing members of a Mexican drug cartel through the Organ Pipe National Monument .
Led by Bishop, key Republicans in the House and Senate are pursuing legislation called the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act that would prohibit the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture from taking action on public lands that would impede border security.
It would also give the Homeland Security secretary immediate access to any public lands managed by the federal government to secure the border, trumping past agreements between the agencies.
“The drug cartels, prostitution rings, kidnappers, and who knows what else, they don’t sign these memos of understanding, and they don’t care about these arbitrary rules that don’t make any sense on the border,” Bishop said.
Even more frustrating, Bishop said, Border Patrol has unlimited access across private property to chase illegal aliens.
“They are allowed to do their jobs on private property, and no one blinks an eye, but on public property, there is a brouhaha,” Bishop said.
“When the Border Patrol has to go to federal land managers and beg for permission to do their jobs, that is no longer acceptable,” Bishop said.
Rep. Peter T. King (R.-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, says the “senseless practice” also leaves the U.S. vulnerable to terrorists.
“We cannot allow the Obama administration’s Interior Department to use environmental regulations to hinder frontline Border Patrol agents’ critical mission of securing our border from illegal immigrants, including potential terrorists,” King said.
But the measure faces opposition by environmental groups who say off-road driving, stadium lighting and other activities threaten the culture and environment in protected areas.
“These bills have been introduced solely to satisfy the radical whims of a small minority of anti-environmental extremists in Congress,” said Jenny Neeley, conservation director of the Sky Island Alliance.
The Border Patrol already works effectively with federal land managers, and no changes are needed, said Matt Clark, spokesman for Defenders of Wildlife in Tucson. The proof, Clark insisted, is in the reduction of apprehensions of illegal aliens—down by two-thirds over the last decade.
“Protections for endangered wildlife, water and clean air are not standing in the way of border security,” Clark said.
A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department said they do not comment on pending legislation, but that they are “fully committed to collaborating with Interior and the USFS [U.S. Forest Service] to find workable solutions on special-status lands.”
“DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] works closely with Interior and USFS to fulfill its enforcement responsibilities while respecting the environment,” said spokesman Matt Chandler.
“While manpower, money and technology are always on demand at the border, access has become critical,” Bishop said.
“I understand why DHS wants to put a good spin on it, and their best face forward, but the bottom line is public land has become the choice entrance for the bad guys,” Bishop said. “So far, the Interior Department’s solutions are signs that say some areas are off-limits to Americans because it’s too dangerous,” he added.
The signs have since been removed, but not before the House committee obtained photos of one posted by the Bureau of Land Management warning visitors to avoid certain areas.
“Danger—public warning, travel not recommended,” one sign reads. “Active drug and human smuggling area. Visitors may encounter armed criminals and smuggling vehicles traveling at high rates of speed.”
The Web page for the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument still carries a warning for visitors and a reminder that it’s located 30 miles from the border: “Each year, hundreds of people travel north through the park, entering the United States. It is possible you could encounter an individual or small group trying to walk through the park with little or no water.”
The warning advises visitors to report that activity to park rangers because “lack of water is a life-threatening emergency in the desert.”
The park also notes that “visitors should be aware that drug smuggling routes pass through the park,” and says such activity should be reported by calling 911.