Cabeza Prieta N.W.R., Ariz.—Three years ago, the endangered lesser long-nosed bat had been ousted from a cave here, one of just four known maternity roosts in the United States, by illegal aliens who used the cave as a cool rest stop on their route north.
Now, the aliens are out of the cave, the bat is back—and all it took was a fence.
Even as the U.S. Border Patrol and now the National Guard fight to keep people from crossing illegally into the United States, a secondary battle is being waged to keep some of the nation’s most pristine lands and endangered species from becoming collateral damage.
“All the actions we try and do, a lot of it gets minimized or marginalized by the traffic we have to deal with,” said Curt McCasland, assistant manager and biologist at Cabeza Prieta, a national wildlife refuge the size of Rhode Island that contains 56 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Years of border-control efforts to the east and west have funneled illegal aliens straight into southern Arizona and across its three wildlife refuges, national forest and park land, an Air Force bombing range and the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation.
It’s a fragile ecosystem where car tracks or even walking trails can remain for decades after they are last used. And aliens leave behind abandoned vehicles and millions of pounds of garbage—estimates run between 5 and 8 pounds per illegal crosser.
“Some areas are so polluted by trash and human waste that the cleanup has to be contracted to professional companies with employees outfitted with haz-mat suits,” said Roger DiRosa, Cabeza Prieta’s manager.
The conflict can also be dangerous. One-third of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which neighbors Cabeza Prieta and shares a 30-mile border with Mexico, is now off-limits to visitors because authorities do not feel they can provide adequate protection.
But those who take care of the federal lands are fighting back with increased attention and new techniques—even if they sometimes worry about the choices they have to make, such as the bat-cave fence.
Illegal aliens started using the cave in 2002, chasing the 4,000 to 6,000 bats that use it away that year, and again in 2003. Mr. McCasland said they thought briefly about trying a gate in front of the cave, but research suggested the bats might still avoid the cave. and the refuge decided it couldn’t afford to take a chance and lose the bats for a third year.
Some see the success of fencing in Cabeza Prieta as an obvious solution—both to the environmental issue and the whole border.
“Fencing the cave brought the bats back. Fencing the border would be cheaper than the cleanup and would bring the environmental quality back,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, who has visited the cave. “A border fence could help lessen the environmental, economic, drug and crime impacts on American society by directing all traffic through the legal ports of entry.”
Many in the immigration debate want to see fencing along most of the border. The Bush administration says some fencing is appropriate but wants to rely more on manpower, cameras and other technology.
The House will vote today on a bill to build a double-walled fence along 700 miles of the border.
The bat-cave fence, which is much simpler, tops out at 10 feet tall, and has sharp points that jut outward at the tips to deter climbers. It was completed in 2004, and the bats have returned each year since.
For the federal lands, the border conflict is absorbing time and money.
Between a third and half of Cabeza Prieta’s annual budget goes to personnel, equipment and repair costs associated with illegal immigration.
At Organ Pipe Cactus, it accounts for half of the $3.3 million annual budget, and takes up half of the $1.5 million budget at nearby Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.
“That $1.5 million I get, Congress thinks I’m spending all of that on wildlife management. Well, not true,” said Mitch Ellis, the manager at Buenos Aires. He said that money covers everything from salaries to replacing four government vehicles stolen, presumably by illegal aliens, so far this year.