- By Jeremy Schwartz American-Statesman Staff
The fight to save the endangered ocelot has pitted a federal agency that wants to keep the U.S.-Mexico border open for animal migrations against one that is seeking to plug the gaps.
Publicly, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, whose strategy to save the spotted cat has included building corridors between the two countries, has declined to comment on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s efforts to seal the border. But in documents and internal emails, the agency has made clear it believes the wall is hurting ocelot recovery efforts.
“In Texas, the border infrastructure is undoubtedly a significant impediment to the long-term recovery of the ocelots,” the agency wrote in recent comments to its ocelot recovery plan.
The agency also has complained that Border Patrol officials made little concession to the ocelot when it built the first round of border walls a decade ago.
Fish and wildlife officials have decried the planned border walls for a decade, arguing they would lead to “serious, and likely irreparable, wildlife and habitat loss and damage” and would undo decades of effort and millions in funding to rehabilitate the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a string of protected parcels stretching along the river.
In 2007, Congress allowed border officials to waive most environmental regulations related to wall construction. Still, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials complained that a last-minute change to the design of the border wall in Hidalgo County eliminated planned passages for ocelots.
And the cat openings that were included elsewhere in the fence “were not installed according to (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) recommendations,” the agency wrote in its ocelot recovery plan.
Fish and Wildlife officials said the one exception to the Border Patrol’s tough stance on ocelots was a small area in Hidalgo County where towers were erected in place of a fence near a designated wildlife corridor.
A decade later, wildlife officials have continued their opposition, going to far as to suggest removal of parts of the fence.
“Modification or removal of existing border infrastructure would create greater connectivity for endangered cats and other wildlife between Mexico and the U.S.” officials wrote in their 2016 ocelot recovery plan, which also recommends securing the border with “alternative methods” such as drones, camera towers and motion sensors.
The latest border wall plans, funded and approved by Congress last week, represent a mixed bag for efforts to restore the ocelot’s once-regular migration across the Rio Grande.
The spending deal will bring 33 miles of new border fencing to the Rio Grande Valley. With 25 miles of new barrier, Hidalgo County, home to many of the refuges, will be nearly fenced off from Mexico, while Starr County to the west will get 8 miles of new border fence.
But the 2,000-acre Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge near McAllen, the focus of months of protest from environmental groups and wall opponents, was specifically protected in the spending bill. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say it is a key part of their effort to build wildlife corridors that will allow species like the ocelot to move through the quickly urbanizing Rio Grande Valley.
While a Mexican ocelot was spotted and tagged at the refuge in the 1990s, however, ocelots haven’t been documented in the refuge for many years.