Federal money for jaguars and bats - or people?
That's the question ranching advocates raised after the federal government announced details for spending nearly $7 million to restore borderlands damaged by construction of the border fence.
From environmentalists and a public preserve manager came this answer: The feds have spent billions on border fences real and virtual, and it's about time to spend tens of millions protecting animals and plants.
In the next few years, authorities will spend the money to develop jaguar management plans, scan remote camera photos for the cats, close dirt roads and restore wetlands along the border. They'll reseed worn soils, monitor fish populations, build a fish barrier, count bat roosts and study bat movements, and plant agaves.
These actions are in the first leg of a $52 million federal program designed to compensate for damage to endangered species habitat on public lands by the border fence and other security measures.
Land managers and environmentalists called the money a good start, but some borderlands ranchers and their spokesmen in the Arizona Cattlemen's Association were less receptive. The association issued a news release titled "Jaguar Receives Green Card," saying the money should protect people first.
Six months after the still-unsolved slaying of Cochise County rancher Robert Krentz, "ranchers and residents south of Interstates 10 and 8 continue to live in a lawless region controlled by drug cartels," the release said. "These drug cartels continue to disrupt everyday life for rural residents along Southern Arizona's border. Yet ranchers are not receiving funds to restore our habitat, nor is the Administration working to restore our border. . . . We have a serious situation on our southern border, and ranchers continue to see the degradation of their environment and traffic from drug cartels."
Federal money for the wildlands will address impacts of a border fence built with no environmental reviews, countered Organ Pipe National Monument Superintendent Lee Baiza. As for competition with border security, Baiza said the $50 million is a small amount compared to $600 million Congress agreed in August to spend on Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and other law enforcement officials, as well as communications equipment and unmanned aerial "drones" to monitor border activities.
The $6.8 million will pay for eight Southwestern projects, six in Arizona. A list of 29 projects identified as feasible for the entire $52 million includes 17 Arizona projects estimated to cost $14.3 million.
The projects are "an absolute joke" because they don't address non-endangered species such as mountain lion, deer and javelina that live in his area but can't get over the border wall, complained rancher John Ladd, who lives near the border wall near the San Pedro River. There's no jaguar or ocelots in that area - but they do exist in areas east of Douglas and west of Sasabe where there is no wall, he said.
"My family has been here since 1896, but we were willing to accept the consequences of the wall if the government had stopped illegal immigration. They haven't done it," Ladd said. "They won't patrol the border, and they can't get Congress to reform the immigration law."
Ladd has a point in that these projects won't help mountain lions get across the wall, said Matt Clark of Defenders of Wildlife in Tucson. But much of the new money will be spent where the Fish and Wildlife Service thinks it can get the most endangered-species conservation for the money, he said.
"The service is not looking at where we can make the border wall better. They are looking at where we can make an investment that furthers the conservation of these species," Clark said. "If you were to calculate the acreages lost to the border wall and roads on private and public lands, then you would be looking at well over $50 million to mitigate it. This is a down payment."
Reese Woodling, a retired rancher near Douglas who still sits on the governing board of the Malpais Borderlands ranching group, said he sees the jaguar monitoring as pointless because with no female jaguars seen in Southern Arizona for decades, he doubts the animal can survive as a viable population here anymore.
"They are just throwing money at these programs," said Wendy Glenn, a rancher in the Malpais Borderlands area east of Douglas. "It's a tough call for me to criticize them, but I don't know how they can spend so much on this when so many other things are needed."
Interior Department Assistant Secretary Rhea Suh, however, called the programs a first step toward meeting the government's responsibility to compensate for the impact on wildlife from the continuing effort to secure the border.
This debate could continue if more types of restoration projects come on line, as is hinted at by the agreement between Interior and DHS. It lays out five other classes of natural resources that could get restoration work beyond the $52 million: for non-endangered wildlife, wetlands and riverfront area, soils and cultural resources, including Native American human remains.
But a cautionary note about the restoration plans also came from another federal document on the Organ Pipe project. It said that unsafe conditions on the borderlands may prevent people from working in the area where most of the restoration work is needed.
On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border
Areas where the wildlands-Restoration funding will be spent
Six initial projects are in Arizona:
• $2.1 million to survey and monitor jaguars for four years, develop a jaguar management plan, fence and restore jaguar habitat and work with ranchers, government and local communities to develop a system to report on jaguars.
• $1.9 million to protect, inventory and monitor endangered lesser long-nosed bat and Mexican long-nosed bat roosts. This involves finding roosts along fence segments from the Patagonia to the Huachuca Mountains and from the Perilla to Peloncillo mountains. It also involves radio-tracking bats in these areas to help find the roosts and to determine how much roads, fences, lights and other facilities act as barriers for bats.
• $980,000 to restore 84 acres damaged by construction of 5.2 miles of fence near Lukeville. This involves closing roads and allowing vegetation to regrow, replanting 200 large transplanted saguaro and organ pipe cacti, seed collecting and propagation, road decompaction, erosion control, planting and invasive species control.
• $657,000 to restore 49.7 acres at the San Bernardino National Wildlife refuge, east of Douglas. It will compensate for the loss of 16 miles of habitat and about 116 acres of roadbed for border fencing and other security measures.
• $441,250 to study four federally protected Rio Yaqui fish species and four sensitive fish species living in that refuge. The work includes an inventory of the fish and an accounting of impacts from unpaved roads, disturbed soils and soil erosion. A shallow well will be drilled to ensure permanent water for a wetland for the fish and the imperiled San Bernardino Springsnail. A fish barrier will be installed to keep exotic fish out of the refuge.
• $274,873 to plant 6,344 agaves at Coronado National Memorial to compensate for removal of 3,172 agaves for fence construction.
Contact reporter Tony Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 806-7746.