Humanitarian Water Stations Allowed in Border Wildlife Refuge

SASABE, Arizona, August 12, 2010 (ENS) – Humanitarian organizations will be permitted to continue providing humane water stations on Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined.

The agency announced its decision Wednesday, saying that placement of water for use by those in need in the desert – both illegal immigrants and others – will help save lives and is compatible with the purpose of the refuge.

The refuge’s location along the border with Mexico within the Altar Valley of southern Arizona protects remnants of a fragile desert ecosystem and provides habitat for some of the region’s most imperiled species, such as pronghorn, Aplomado falcons and masked bobwhite quail.

But in the past eight years, 25 people are known to have died on refuge lands while trying to cross the desert grassland, where temperatures average in the mid-90s during the summer.

Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona (Photo by Walt K)

“While the number of deaths on the refuge has been steadily declining, the Service recognizes that every death that can be prevented should be prevented,” said Benjamin Tuggle, Southwest regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Two faith-based humanitarian organizations – Samaritans and No More Deaths, both headquartered in nearby Tucson – have applied to place water stations on the refuge lands.

In order to minimize environmental impacts, sites throughout the 118,000-acre refuge will be allowed for placement of stationary, 55-gallon water drums adjacent to roadsides and in already disturbed areas. They will be marked with tall blue flags that can be seen from a distance. Since 2001, three such sites have been allowed on the refuge.

“Our decision to allow water stations on Buenos Aires was based on a thorough review of different approaches to provide water for humanitarian needs and minimize environmental impacts from each of those approaches,” said Tuggle.

“Placement of these water stations is yet another tool being used by the refuge to provide life-saving aid to those in need in a manner consistent with our conservation mission,” he said.

The issue of whether available water sources are adequate for illegal immigrants who are threatened by severe dehydration and possible death has been a contentious topic along the southwestern border for over a decade.

Buenos Aires NWR officials and other federal land managers along the border have seen an increase in requests to place water on these lands. Some of these requests have been permitted while other groups place water containers on public lands without authorization.

To address this growing activity, the Department of Interior conducted an evaluation in 2008 of the placement of waters on public lands by humanitarian organizations.

Tuggle says the new compatibility determination identifies a responsible balance among the Service’s mission to protect sensitive wildlife habitat, assist in securing U.S. borders, and provide potentially life-saving assistance to those in need.

It provides guidance under which the refuge manager will consider requests by humanitarian organizations for permits to place water on the refuge.

Illegal immigrants apprehended on the Buenos Aires NWR, 2006 (Photo by Jenny Neeley courtesy Sierra Club Border Committee)

During the past decade, refuge staff have worked with Customs and Border Protection to secure the southern border. This has included providing complete access to CBP agents for patrol activities, installation of emergency rescue beacons, and construction of a 15-foot high, seven-mile long pedestrian barrier along the entire southern portion of the refuge in 2007 and 2008.

These measures have reduced the number of illegal immigrants crossing the refuge and the number of immigrant deaths on refuge lands, the Service said in its determination.

From 2006 to 2007 an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 illegal immigrants traveled through the refuge each year. But in 2008 and 2009, estimates for illegal immigrant traffic were approximately 31,500 and 20,700, respectively.

Still, the Service estimates that every day between 50-60 illegal immigrants travel through the refuge.

“Recorded causes of death include dehydration, injury, and exposure to extreme temperatures, illness and homicide. Some individuals have been encountered on the refuge in very poor condition due to lack of water, requiring immediate medical attention,” the Service states in its determination.

In addition to permitting humanitarian organizations to supply water stations, the refuge has improved its water tanks and catchments to retain water from rain and flood events. Refuge wells and administrative building sites have been fixed with spigots to provide reliable year-round sources of drinking water.

“There is no evidence or research indicating that water stations themselves lead to an increase in numbers of illegal immigrants passing through an area,” the Service said in its determination. “The reverse may in fact be true as there is documentation that illegal immigrants may avoid water stations in fear of being apprehended by CBP.”

Yet the Service warns of environmental impacts caused by illegal immigrants. These include tons of trash left on refuge lands and more than 1,300 miles of illegal trails and roads that result in loss of vegetation, erosion and wildlife disturbance.

And there are the wildfires. Several fires are started each year by illegal immigrants, resulting in significant environmental damage and cost to the government, the Service said. Two fires in the vicinity of the refuge in 2009 burned over 23,000 acres and cost federal and state governments $1.2 million to extinguish.

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