The first thing you notice about the border fence at the Monterrey Banco Unit of Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge is: It’s not on the border. It’s a quarter–mile or so north of the river that separates the United States and Mexico. The second thing you notice is: It’s not a fence. It’s an 18–foot–high concrete wall built into the side of a once–traversable levee.

By any name, though, the border barrier directly or indirectly impacts 60 to 70 percent of the refuge´s habitat, according to South Texas National Wildlife Refuge Complex project leader Kelly McDowell. And the refuge is adjusting. It is working with the Department of Homeland Security to safeguard the border while simultaneously “trying to protect the [natural] resources that the American people want us to protect,” McDowell says.

Lower Rio Grande Valley Refuge comprises 90,000 acres on about 115 units along 275 river miles in a locale where four climat—esdesert, coastal, temperate and subtropical—converge. Although 95 percent of the valley´s vegetation has been cleared for development or agriculture, the refuge is home to 1,200 documented plant species. Its mission is to protect, restore and connect habitat through which wildlife can travel and flourish. The downsides of the border barrier are well-known.

“You’ve just stuck a fence through a corridor refuge,” says McDowell. “So, the impacts to movement of species, particularly species like ocelots and jaguarundi, are the biggest concern.” In Texas—unlike New Mexico, Arizona and California—the barrier is not continuous. Rather, it is more than 20 gapped segments totaling 57 miles (of a proposed 70 miles) in length. It is from 200 feet to a mile north of the border. And, in Texas, for geographical, technical and political reasons, it is a wall in some places and a bollard fence in others. As such, the barrier disrupts habitat connectivity for transient species and blocks genetic interchange within such species. It separates wildlife from the essential water of the Rio Grande. It increases operational-and maintenance–related damage to refuge habitat. It can corner wildlife (and perhaps refuge staff) trying to escape floods, fires or other danger. It funnels human traffic to its gaps. How the refuge is assisting DHS and adjusting to the border barrier is less well-known.

“We’re working together and not getting in the way of DHS,” says Nancy Brown, the refuge’s public outreach specialist. “The Fish and Wildlife Service is cooperating.”

“A Forum to Discuss Issues”

One way the agencies are cooperating is via a Border Management Task Force that was mandated by the Department of the Interior and DHS secretaries. The task force, which meets quarterly, “has given us a forum to discuss issues, to work out issues,” says McDowell—issues such as on which refuge roads Border Patrol agents can operate, and how and when Border Patrol crews trim refuge vegetation. Together, the Service and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) produced a nine–minute video designed to cultivate in border agents and refuge staff an understanding and a respect for the other agency’s mission.

A result has been greater cooperation between refuge law enforcement and CBP. Border Patrol agents now routinely report nocturnal wildlife sightings to the refuge. To prevent smugglers from driving through expanses of the refuge near the Rio Grande, the Service has helped CBP by erecting natural barriers through which wildlife can pass but cars can’t.

The situation reached this point because, in 2007, then–DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff exercised his authority to waive numerous laws—including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—to construct the border barrier on DOI lands. “We stood our ground” as much as possible, but decisions on the barrier’s placement were made in four days, says Lower Rio Grande Valley Refuge–based ecological services specialist Ernesto Reyes, who helped win key placement concessions for endangered wildlife. Generally, though, “this was something that we weren’t able to get science out in front of to see what was here and to see what would happen,” says McDowell.

To compensate for the law waivers, a January 2009 letter of commitment between DHS and DOI states that "CBP agrees to fund up to $50 million in reasonable mitigation measures to offset the adverse effects" of the barrier along the four–state southern border. The Service and other agencies have identified $52 million worth of impacts to threatened and endangered species—funding that would go toward meeting the acreage goals of Lower Rio Grande Valley Refuge.

“We’ve redesigned our land acquisition. We’ve looked at how we prioritize future growth, future management of Lower Rio Grande Valley, based on what we see now. We had to,” says McDowell. “We’ve been a little more specific about where we’d grow along the river based on where the fence is.” Refuge staff has asked itself, “How can we, and are we going to, meet our mission as a refuge after the fence?” says McDowell. “We think we can for the species we have been entrusted”—as long as no more border barrier beyond what is now proposed is built in Texas.