There is a fine line between conservation work and environmental advocacy. The mission of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory has always been the study of birds and the conservation of their habitats around the Gulf of Mexico. Our mission does not include taking positions on political issues. The Audubon Society and many other organizations do a wonderful job fighting the battles to help save our environment through legislation. However, a big part of our mission is to educate the public and raise awareness of issues that might affect wildlife. I have posted in the past about the threat that coastal wind farms pose to migratory birds. There is a new threat - more direct, more insidious, and fast-tracked to destroy a lot of irreplaceable habitat along the Rio Grande in south Texas.
Most everyone has heard of the new border fence that is supposed to stop illegal immigration from Mexico. So far, only a portion of the fence has been built in desolate areas with little valuable habitat. A map was recently leaked by someone in Homeland Security that shows the proposed fence in the lower Rio Grande Valley. This map and the sources quoted there are from this article in the Daily Kos. The proposed fence will plow through some of the most unique and valuable habitat in North America.
From the Kos article: "The first name given by Spanish explorers to the Rio Grande was the Rio de las Palmas, after the extensive forests of sabal palm trees there. Those forests are mostly gone now, replaced by grapefruit orchards, etc. Only small patches of it remain, in sanctuaries and wildlife refuges, such as Sabal Palms run by the Audubon Society east of Brownsville, Texas. The bird life at this southernmost point of the lower 48 has a Central American feel."
Many bird species from Mexico reach their northern limits here. Plain Chachalaca, Green Jay, Hook-billed Kite, Brown Jay, Clay-colored Robin, Altamira Oriole, Great Kiskadee, and others. The Valley, and its remaining habitat, is a meca for birders from around the world. The string of wildlife refuges and preserves here, including Sabal Palm, Audubon Frontera Thicket, Santa Ana, and the World Birding Center at Bentson Rio Gande Park are the last refuges of these tropical birds in the U.S. From the US Fish and Wildlife service website: "Life tends to be richest at its borders. Here, on the international border between U.S. and Mexico, a host of nature's borders converge climate, community, land form and geography. Only 5% of the native landscape remains on the lower river and its nearby reaches, yet the diversity within these fragments adds up to an astonishing 1,200 types of plants, 700 species of vertebrates (including nearly 500 bird species) and 300 kinds of butterflies. You'll find 11 different biological communities, from the Chihuahuan thorn forest to tidal wetlands. Numbers alone cannot depict the true value. A rare ocelot merges with the shadowy brush. A pair of crested caracaras glides above the river. A Mexican bluewing butterfly flutters into view, while great kiskadees cry an insistent "kis-ka-dee, kis-ka-dee". "
Unfortunately, anti-immigration zealots, as well as elements of Homeland Security don't seem to care about that. Here is a description of this portion of the $49 billion fence: "The Wall will be a double barrier with the first located 100' back from the Rio. Though in some cases, local conditions will require a setback as far as 1000'. There will be an "alley", 150 ft. wide, between the two fences. All vegetation will be removed from the riverbank all the way back to a buffer zone inside the second fence, to enable better surveillance - 500+ feet minimum in all locations (from Kos)"
Also from the Kos article: "The BP agent I spoke to said the only way to make the fence "work" would be to completely remove all vegetation from the river shore, the space between the fences, and a buffer zone on the U.S. side of the innermost fence. The current heavy vegetation found along the shore is the only way to prevent the river from eroding its banks. There is a spot at the Butterfly Park where the heaviest vegetation has failed and in the last two years I have seen almost 10 feet of river bank slide into the water. The fence, by its very location along the Rio Grande, would be situated on a flood plain and be subject to washing out in those areas, especially near the Gulf of Mexico, which are prone to hurricanes." These statements are especially ironic, since the Fish and Wildlife Service, in concert with other groups, has spent millions of dollars of taxpayer money to protect this very habitat.
It appears that the Refuges are being targeted first since private landowners are ready to put up a determined fight against the eminent domain threats. It is hard to relay the magnitude of this threat. Regardless of your political leanings or feelings about immigration, if you care about wildlife habitat, and respect the years of work that conservationists have put into protecting this area, please oppose this fence. It's an environmental disaster.
Altamira Oriole photo by Greg Lavaty
Fence photo from the website of Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA)