Mexican horses and cattle destroy Big Bend National Park.
One of the most demanding and spectacular day hikes inside Big Bend National Park in Texas is a trail called Marufo Vega. The 14 mile loop, rated as strenuous, requires always moving around to make sure you’re back to your car by sunset. It’s exhausting, picturesque, and very satisfying, not least because I’ve never met another human on it.
However, I have always met a few horses. As you approach the Rio Grande, which is also the border with Mexico, although you would never know it, as it is one of the most remote and beautiful panoramas in the park, you can usually spot at least one horse silently grazing on the mountainside and watching from a safe distance.
At first I thought the horses were mustangs because truly wild horses live in habitats that look a lot like this all over the Intermountain West. According to Raymond Skiles, who worked as the park’s wildlife biologist for 31 years, visitors generally report being happy to see horses roaming free on their backcountry treks, often because they take them for savages. But these are domestic horses belonging to the vaqueros– Spanish for “cowboys” – who live just across the border. They are actively herded across the river on a regular basis and have been for decades. The lush, arid grasslands of the Chihuahuan Desert, which the park restores and protects, naturally provide the best pasture for hundreds of miles around. Both grazing and cross-border breeding, which requires vaqueros to enter the United States, are against the United States
Most intruder animals, as they are called, carry indicators of their status as farm animals – ear tags, horseshoes, bells – like the cows I encountered on my way down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, one of the highlights of the park. Over the past decades, aerial counts have shown a minimum of around 100 farm animals inside the park on any given day. We found that all were from ejidos, unfenced community lands in Mexico, or larger private Mexican ranches.
One of the biggest and most insurmountable threats to the park’s natural and cultural resources is damage from illegal grazing, according to park superintendent Bob Krumenaker. In 2018, Skiles coordinated an extensive management plan to deal with what is effectively a continuing low-intensity emergency.
Big Bend is not only home to endangered native plants like Guadalupe’s fescue, a perennial grass on the endangered species list, but is also critical habitat for the Yellow-billed Cuckoo and is home to other endangered native animal species. endangered, like the Rio Grande silver minnow and the Mexican long-nosed bat. When they trample inside these habitats, farm animals that enter them damage soil crusts and cause erosion. In some places, they create networks of trails, called terraces, in which soil conditions are greatly altered and plants are killed. Other animal tracks cross historical and archaeological sites and eventually destroy ancient structures. Livestock also carry the seeds of invasive species in their droppings, including the extremely invasive buxel, which has the potential to turn biodiverse deserts into monocultures of grass.
So why does illegal grazing continue? How hard can it be to apprehend a cow or a farm horse, after all? How could such extensive damage be uncontrolled in a place as carefully managed and studied as a national park, in an area as heavily guarded as the southern border?
The hardships cannot simply be blamed on the ever-shrinking NPS budgets, which the public likes to blame for all park-related issues. Chief Ranger Rick Gupman says authorities on both sides of the border have been working on the intrusive cattle problem for decades, with no long-term success. (He and the other park service employees mentioned in this article speak for themselves, not for the national park service.) And as with anything about borders, the answer to the question “Why does this not work- doesn’t it? Largely depends on who you ask.
The control measures to round up the cows, horses and burros parked across the river from Boquillas and Santa Elena, the small villages on the south side of the river, have been quite effective in the short term. These involve overflights and aerial counts to facilitate routine roundups by park rangers and USDA officers on foot and on horseback. Under USDA regulations, confiscated animals are quarantined and subject to veterinary inspection to meet health and sanitary certification requirements. All healthy cattle are sold for slaughter (unless an owner claims a fine), while healthy horses and burros are auctioned. All sick animals are either euthanized or sold for slaughter. None of them are returned to their owners.
But the cost of losing entire individual herds every now and then is less than the gain that grazing on park grass brings to entire communities in the long run. In other words, despite the financial losses, keeping their cattle in the United States is still worth it for the vaqueros. And as long as it does, illegal grazing has no chance of being eliminated. New animals will continue to appear, regardless of the number confiscated.
Is this scenario starting to sound familiar to you?
Introduce more severe legal or financial consequences for the vaqueros is not the solution either. It is not difficult to move the cattle from one side of the water to the other. Residents of Boquillas, right across from some of the park’s most beloved exhibits, do this daily in order to earn US dollars from tourists willing to pay for a photo of a horse or the privilege of riding one. They themselves cross several times a day to sell trinkets to tourists or sing for money. All of these activities are illegal, but this is how the villagers have made a living for some time. And the border patrol has bigger fish to whip up. Their job is to fight drug and human trafficking, cartel-linked border posts that cross border communities, into the park and head north through the desert in hopes of reaching the I-10. It is the park’s law enforcement rangers who are responsible for looking after both the local trinket industry and cartel-related activities. According to Chief Ranger Gupman, they end up unable to enforce all laws consistently.
But it’s not just because there aren’t enough rangers to do the job. The success of the fight against the cartel depends in large part on maintaining good relations with the border villages and the Mexican authorities. Indeed, Big Bend is an example of excellent cross-border relationships, over the past decades of border upheavals and political change. Such good relations are essential to the sustainability of small and old border communities. While more intense policing of Mexican farmers and more consistent roundups may seem like the best answer, a ‘crackdown’ on trespassing cattle would be a challenge to implement, given what is involved. to lose. Park authorities are constantly faced with the delicate tightrope between protecting the resource and protecting their long-standing and hard-won transboundary relationships. If they cannot sacrifice law enforcement in order to get along, they must at the same time continue to get along.
The border is not only “international”, it is also deeply “local”. And in places like Big Bend, it functions as a border not only because of the way it restricts what people can do, but also because of goodwill, cooperation and communication across the border, over time. generations.
Eliminating illegal grazing is more difficult than just increasing security. This requires creating incentives to keep Mexican cattle at home. The key, according to Superintendent Krumenaker, is to identify the conditions that would make illegal grazing “no longer worth it” for them. vaqueros, and devote assistance to the implementation of these conditions, but none of them fall under the purview of the National Park Service.
The only way to keep livestock away from this protected ecosystem is to provide them with a better life in their domestic environment. No one knows exactly what such improvements would look like, but as long as policymakers continue to inject resources solely into the militarization of the border, we will never know. And the extensive damage to one of America’s greatest environmental treasures will certainly continue, as if inevitable.