May 8, 2007 - 6:58PM
ALAMO — The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has targeted federal wildlife refuges for the initial construction of border fences, the regional head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed Tuesday.
"I don't know if you want to say fast-tracked, but it's certainly easier when you're talking about government land," said Ken Merritt, project leader of the South Texas Refuge Complex.
"They had identified a series of tracts along the river. It's not very clear right now. We were presented with a map we were promised would change."
Last week, an e-mail written by a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staffer and circulated among local conservationists discussed DHS plans to expedite construction in the refuges. The substance of that e-mail was confirmed by Merritt, who met with officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week.
A DHS map released to border officials last month designated some 370 miles of land from Texas to California for construction of a border fence by the end of 2008.
Riverfront refuge land in the Rio Grande Valley totals some 70,000 acres, representing about 30 percent of the shoreline, Merritt said.
Conservationists have fought for years to protect those refuges, winning lawsuits against U.S. Border Patrol and the International Boundary and Water Commission that prevented brush being cleared.
"But that was before Homeland Security, and now they seem able to obliterate everything that came before," said Mary Lou Campbell of the Sierra Club. "We wanted to protect the brushland, because without it several species of animal cannot survive and breed."
Much of conservationists' concern surrounds the endangered ocelot, a species of spotted cat that uses the brush as cover when it hunts. The jaguarundi, another predatory cat native to the Valley, is also on the endangered species list but hasn't had an official sighting in the Valley for years.
Merritt, the Fish and Wildlife Service official, said he would work with engineers to try to lessen the distress to local wildlife.
"It's kind of difficult to assess what the impact is going to be because we don't know a whole lot right now," he said.
"Hopefully, we'll learn more this week."
Conservationists are still considering taking legal action against the federal government over the fence, the Sierra Club's Campbell said.
"They really can't fight it," she said of the Fish and Wildlife Service's limited recourse in dealing with the DHS.
"But we as individuals can."
James Osborne covers McAllen and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4428.