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Wildlife at border may lose sanctuary

A fence along the lush Rio Grande could exact an environmental toll.

October 17, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

FRONTON, TEXAS — Betty Perez and John Odgers typically don't share the same canoe -- or much else.

She's an Earth mother-type who used to buy health food for an Austin cooperative and now cultivates native plants.

He's a former banker turned Minuteman whose post-retirement pursuits include tracking illegal immigrants and packing heat.

But Perez and Odgers do have one thing in common: a deep love for the majestic winged creatures that live along the wild banks of the Rio Grande.

The federal government's plan to fence off more than 300 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border is fostering strange political bedfellows here in South Texas.

Few dispute that the same reedy riverbanks beloved by critters are also prime habitat for drug runners and human smugglers. Now an unusual assortment of interest groups -- not just the usual tree-huggers, but also civic and business leaders worried about eco-tourism dollars -- have begun voicing alarm over the environmental costs of a boundary that many South Texans consider a hopeless boondoggle.

So it was a sign of the times when Perez and Odgers happily floated down the river together, eager to show off a nature lover's paradise they fear will be forever lost beyond 16-foot-high walls.

"This is all going to be behind the fence," Perez, 55, lamented as she paddled along an unspoiled stretch, pointing out exotic birds and stocky palm trees that exist nowhere else in the country. "Soon, I guess I'm going to have to bring my papers to come down here."

Odgers, 68, a noted local birding guide, sat without a paddle at the bow, barking out the names of the fauna swooping by -- "Groove-billed ani to the left!" -- while a reporter scribbled notes and a fatiguing Perez muttered about lazy men.

It was tranquil, save for the distant hum of a Mexican highway, and aside from the suspicious sight of a skiff sitting untended on the Mexican side, there was no illegal activity in sight. For four hours, until the canoe made shore below the bluffs of the 330-year-old town of Roma, there also was not a single Border Patrol agent in sight.

The lush, meandering lower leg of the Rio Grande is one of the most biologically diverse places in North America. More than 300 varieties of butterflies and half the bird species in the United States can be spotted here. So can two endangered species of wild cats: the ocelot, which resembles a miniature leopard, and the jaguarundi, an otter-faced relative of the puma.

Over the last 30 years, ranchers, conservationists, and state and federal officials have strung together a delicate necklace of nature sanctuaries along the river's final 275 miles. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alone has invested more than $100 million to buy land and restore it to its native state, creating a riverside corridor called the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Now the new federal directive to build 21 fence segments here threatens to trample the lands the government and private groups spent decades nurturing. A Fish and Wildlife analysis found that up to 75% of the nature corridor could be harmed, for just 70 miles of fence.

"In this little area, you will find more species in four counties than in all but three entire states," said Martin Hagne, executive director of the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco, a vacant lot that was transformed into an educational park filled with malachite and pixie butterflies, Texas tortoises and cottontail rabbits.

"Now they're going to spend billions of dollars to undo the work that cost millions of dollars. These are your tax dollars at work," he said.

Over the last years, business leaders and city officials have spent millions turning South Texas into a lucrative eco-tourism attraction. More than 125,000 people visit the Rio Grande Valley every year to see fields of butterflies hovering above nectar plants and to watch flocks of birds descend on the river and the resacas, lakes formed when the serpentine stream shifts course.

The Rio Grande sits in some of the continent's biggest migratory bird corridors, and listers, or bird aficionados who aim to watch every species in the country, know that South Texas is the only place to scratch off the names of many birds native to Central America (seeing them south of the border doesn't count).

The visitors sustain 2,000 jobs and pump $125 million a year into the economy, according to the visitors bureau in McAllen.

Cities have built riverside viewing centers to cater to the tourists -- civic investments that could soon go bust. Early blueprints of the fence indicate that several sites, including the Old Hidalgo Pump House and the World Birding Center, could be blocked from the river.

"It's a major economic part of our community," said Kay Wolf, director of the pump house, which carried water to the Rio Grande Valley in 1909 and was converted into an attraction with more than $1 million in government funding. "And officially, we haven't heard anything. We learned about this when we saw something in the newspaper."

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