Friday, June 3, 2011

Border Patrol: Pupfish doesn't hinder job

Alamogordo Daily News
May 26, 2011
By Milan Simonich

SANTA FE - Is the 2-inch-long desert pupfish endangering the lives of U.S. Border Patrol agents?

A conservative publication called Human Events made that claim last week. Then the press secretary for New Mexico's Republican congressman, Steve Pearce, distributed the story as evidence that "excessive" environmental regulations had put lives at risk.

The story began this way: "Federal agents must abandon their vehicles and chase drug smugglers and illegal aliens on foot through 40 acres near the Mexican border because of a pond that is home to the endangered desert pupfish."

The truth is much different from that description, said Lee Baiza, superintendent of Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where the rare pupfish is found.

For starters, the pupfish's area amounts to a single acre, not 40 acres, Baiza said.

More important, the pupfish's pond rests amid dense vegetation and oak, mesquite and ironwood trees.

Neither border patrol agents nor anybody else can drive a car or truck there, Baiza said.

The woods and muddy pond, 5 feet deep in spots, are accessible only by foot, horseback or all-terrain vehicle, he said.

"A bad guy's not going to be able to drive there, either," Baiza said of allusions to drug runners or people who cross illegally from Mexico into the United States.

The rough, rustic area of the pupfish is not an easy place for lawbreakers to navigate.

"It is not considered a hot spot for illicit cross-border activities," said Victor Brabble, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

Nonetheless, Tucson sector agents patrol every area surrounding the pupfish's pond, Brabble said.

Baiza, a native of Carlsbad, said politics has become an everyday part of border life, often obscuring realities that federal employees deal with on the ground.

The national monument that he supervises covers 516 square miles, and many of its wooded areas, canyons and arroyos are not accessible by car or truck. This means border patrol agents and everybody else are limited in where they can drive.

"It's not flat, open desert. It's mountainous terrain," Baiza said. "An indefinite amount is accessible only by foot, horse or ATV."

Pearce's press secretary, Eric Layer, distributed the story blaming the pupfish for agents' lack of mobility. It was headlined: "Desert pupfish forces border agents to patrol on foot."

Layer sent along a personal note with the story: "For those of you who have been covering the dunes sagebrush lizard issue, I thought you might be interested in yet another example of the consequences of extreme environmental regulations. Though environmental groups continue to argue that their actions do not have consequences, here we see that excessive regulations compromise our border security and threaten lives."

After being told about the pupfish's habitat being inaccessible by vehicle, Layer sent another note.

"To be clear, we were just sharing a piece we thought would be of interest. Congressman Pearce has not made any statement about this issue or the article."

Brabble said the pupfish is no hindrance to safety or border security.

"With the combination of technology, manpower and infrastructure, agents are able to effectively detect and apprehend individuals in that area," he said.

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