Sunday, May 20, 2007

Impact of U.S.-Mexico border fence on wildlife still unknown

By MELISSA McEVER-The Valley Morning Star
May 16, 2007 - 10:50PM

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said Wednesday they're no closer to knowing what kind of impact the proposed border fence would have on refuge land and habitat.

The statement followed Tuesday's meeting between the wildlife service and U.S. Border Patrol agents.

"We didn't get any specific information we were hoping to get," said Ken Merritt, project leader for South Texas Refuge Complex. "We did have a good discussion about our concerns, though."

Refuge officials learned only a few weeks ago about plans to build some of barrier on refuge land, Merritt said. Those plans could be "fast tracked" because refuge lands are government owned, officials have confirmed.

On Tuesday, Border Patrol officials told refuge leaders that parts of the fence could be built next to the Rio Grande, but other stretches likely would be built near international bridges or the levee system, Merritt said.

Fish and Wildlife Service experts are concerned that a barrier constructed along the Rio Grande, and on carefully restored habitat in Valley refuges, could hurt the region's endangered species by cutting off access to water and habitat in Mexico.

Species like the endangered ocelot and jaguarundi wouldn't have access to mating partners across the border either, they say.

It's unlikely that any fencing will be built on the Valley's Santa Ana and Laguna Atascosa wildlife refuges, Merritt said. However, some portions of the fence could be on the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge's property, he said.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley refuge is not confined to one area. The government owns land along a 275-mile stretch of the Rio Grande. Creating the refuge was an attempt to recreate a largely destroyed wildlife corridor, officials have said. Some of the refuge property is untouched brushland; other parcels were restored to native habitat from agricultural land.

Federal officials and private groups have spent about $70 million buying land for the refuge, and another $20 million restoring it to native brushland, Merritt said.

The Border Patrol meeting was one of the first chances U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials had to provide input into the project, he said.

That input will make its way to Washington, said Oscar Saldaña, spokesman for the Border Patrol's Valley sector.

"We don't have the answers right now, but we're forwarding the questions up the chain of command," Saldaña said.

Saldaña said that the Border Patrol was sensitive to environmental concerns relating to the fence.

"We're concerned about nature — we're not just going to go in there and disturb what is already set," he said.

No follow-up meetings on the issue are scheduled at this time, Saldaña said.

http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/articles/refuge _76507___article.html/wildlife_border.html

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