Fish & Wildlife Service

Buenos Aires National Game Refuge where Endangered Species and Illegal Immigration Collide

The 118,000-acre Buenos Aires Game Refuge in Southern Arizona’s Altar Valley was created in 1985 “to establish and manage populations of the masked bobwhite quail” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Altar Valley is also a major route for illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

Thousands of people cross the border there every year. One source says that somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 people per year had crossed the border, but local ranchers say the numbers are much lower than that now. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) which runs the Refuge has issued a travel advisory warning people about the area:

“As a result of illegal immigrants crossing our borders, other unlawful acts do occur within the Refuge. Some of the illegal immigrants are armed, dangerous, and determined to complete the trip at any cost. Most often these are smugglers and drug runners. They may drive a stolen vehicle or they may hire human ‘mules’ to carry their contraband in homemade backpacks.”

“These illegal routes are lined with empty water jugs and other trash. Illegal immigrants frequently stop to camp, collect wood and start fires. These fires sometimes escape and cause damage to wildlife habitat. Trash left at these sites is not only unsightly, it is unsanitary and attracts a variety of scavengers. Nearby water sources are often so fouled by pollution that wildlife can no longer use them. Some overnight rest stops are so heavily used that the damage is extensive. During the rainy seasons, trails and vehicle routes become avenues for floodwaters, further increasing the resource damage.”

One area rancher said, “There are quite a few government agencies with various responsibilities to protect us from the onslaught of illegal activity that exists on or near our border.  That activity creates dangers to us personally and that is our greatest concern. That activity also harms our environment and undermines many of the environmentally protective measures that we ranchers have committed to and are undertaking.   I hope all the agencies can work closely together so that they can succeed in their mission.”

The fact that there still is illegal immigration means that the federal government is not adequately enforcing the ESA to protect the environment nor enforcing border security to protect people in and near the Refuge.

A short history of the area complied from FWS and local ranchers:

The Altar Valley was first homesteaded by Pedro Aguirre, Jr. in 1864 as the “Buenos Ayres Ranch.” He had been running a stagecoach and freight line between Tucson and mines near Arivaca, Arizona and Altar, Sonora, Mexico. Aguirre drilled wells, built earthen dams, and created Aguirre Lake. This ensured a water supply for cattle in the Altar Valley.

As railroads opened new markets, cattle numbers in southeastern Arizona exploded. But an extreme drought from 1885-1892 killed at least 50% of each herd. The remaining cattle stripped the land bare. This occurred before establishment of modern ranching practice. When the rains returned, no grasses were left to absorb the water. The rain eroded the land, creating the washes and gullies we see today. The earthquake of 1887 may have contributed to the erosion by either raising the land or lowering the water table.

Between 1909 and 1985, Buenos Aires Ranch changed ownership several times. It became one of the most prominent and successful livestock operations in Arizona. From 1926 to 1959, the Gill family raised prize-winning racing quarter horses. During the 1970’s and 80’s, the Victorio Land and Cattle Company specialized in purebred Brangus cattle, which are well suited to hot, dry climates. The ranch sold bulls and bull semen nationally and internationally with some bulls selling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In 1985, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the Buenos Aires Ranch, and it became a National Wildlife Refuge. FWS brought in pronghorn antelope and masked bobwhite quails (which promptly became food for coyotes and hawks). FWS abandoned wells and waterlines because they were “unnatural.” With the lack of water, much of the wildlife left. (More recently, FWS re-established some of the stock ponds.) The Altar Valley is the northern fringe of the bobwhite’s range. At the time of Refuge creation, a study of the bobwhite was going on at Las Delicias ranch. That study indicated that the bottom of the valley was too extreme for the quail.

A more detailed history is presented in the book Ranching, Endangered Species, and Urbanization in the Southwest, by Dr. Nathan Sayre (2002) University of Arizona Press. (The book is available in local libraries).

Sayre recounts the history of cattle ranching in the Altar Valley by examining both the economics and ecology of ranching. The Altar Valley was a lush grassland, but one without perennial water sources. In a parallel story, Sayre examines the failed effort of the federal government to establish the Masked Bobwhite quail in the region, first by working with the ranchers, and then by buying out the ranches and establishing the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. When the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge was created, cattle were removed and so were most of the developed water sources.

Sayre starts by exploring the history of the masked bobwhite quail, a subspecies of the northern bobwhite, from its discovery in 1880s, its disappearance around 1900, to its return to the Altar Valley in the 1970s. During this period, the masked bobwhite acquired great symbolic value among ornithologists and wildlife managers as a victim of cattle grazing. Sayre concluded that the effort to reestablish the bobwhite was doomed to failure because the Altar Valley is at the very northern extreme of the quail’s habitat. They die in freezing weather which occurs frequently in mid-winter on the Refuge.

Subsequent chapters recount the development of ranches from the 1880s to the 1970s and the constant battle to provide water and forage while suffering droughts and floods. These chapters deal with the “cattle boom” in the 19th century, its ecological consequences, and how successive owners dealt with these conditions.

Sayre notes that more than 25,000 captive-bred birds have been released on the Refuge at a cost of $68 million, but few if any survive. “Despite the removal of livestock, Refuge biologists have not succeeded in establishing a self-sustaining population of masked bobwhites.” “An ambitious program of prescribed burning, intended to simulate the natural fire regime of the desert grasslands, has not resulted in any change in the vegetation on the Buenos Aires.”

The flyleaf of the book notes that “The creation of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge has been a symbolic victory for environmentalists, but it comes at the cost of implicitly legitimizing the ongoing fragmentation and suburbanization of Arizona’s…rangeland. Sayre reveals how the polarized politics of the rangeland conflict have bound the Fish and Wildlife Service to a narrow, ineffectual management strategy on the Buenos Aires, with greater attention paid to increasing tourism from bird watchers than to the complex challenge of restoring the masked bobwhite and its habitat.” (The Buenos Aires is now under a new director who is working on another updated plan.)

The Refuge has been a favored route for illegal immigration. It has also been the site of various accidental or intentional unplanned range fires set by the border crossers either for the purpose of being located and rescued or perhaps as decoys to draw resources away from routes being used for narcotics transportation.

But humans are not the only invaders. Because of earlier government soil conservation practices, the area of the Refuge was converted in large part to a plantation of exotic grass species. It started around 1900. According to a UofA News story, “Combined overgrazing and drought resulted in ecological disaster in the 1890s… A concerned federal government intervened at the turn of the century. Pioneering researchers lacked modern technology and time to experiment with re-establishing native grasses after their initial attempts to restore these grasses failed. Their worldwide search for the best ‘miracle’ grass to reduce soil erosion and provide livestock nutritive forage ended in the 1930s in South Africa, where they found Lehmann lovegrass. It established readily from seed, was easy to handle, and thrived on less than 10 inches annual rainfall. Lehmann lovegrass was widely seeded across southeastern Arizona from the 1940s through the 1970s.”

According to a local expert on desert grasses, Lehmann lovegrass “was the grass of choice for the highway department that seeded it alongside the roads to prevent erosion. The prolific production of very fine seed with the extra water afforded by runoff from highways contributed as much as anything to the spread of the grass. Additionally, the seed was readily picked up by vehicle tires and transported everywhere. Lehmann lovegrass greens up earlier in spring and stays green longer in the fall than many native perennials, so it provides good forage at those times; it is not the grass of first choice during the prime summer rainy season–native perennials are first choice– but fills its own important niche at other times. Lehmann tends to occupy the lower areas between hills and is slow to move up hills, especially the common limey, rocky slopes.” Lehmann lovegrass initially displaced native species and decreased the biodiversity of the Refuge, “but it seems to be hindered from displacing native grasses where those are well established.” Area ranchers report that native species are returning in some areas.

The Fish & Wildlife Service has failed in its original goal to establish a viable, permanent population of masked bobwhite quail in the Altar Valley. It seems that the major result of this experiment has been to turn productive land into non-productive land.

Jaguar Listing and Habitat Designation Based on Junk Science

JaguarA Freedom of Information Act inquiry has revealed that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) decision to declare portions of Arizona and New Mexico as “Critical Habitat” for the jaguar has no basis in fact. USFWS based its decision on unsubstantiated anecdotal stories that did not meet the Endangered Species Act definition of minimum scientific standards. The inquiry also found possible collusion between an employee of the Arizona Fish and Game Department and the Center for Biological Diversity. The report of the inquiry was written by Biologist/Attorney Dennis Parker. Here is the press release:



In a recent letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) the Southern Arizona Cattlemen’s Protective Association (SACPA), the Coalition of Arizona/New Mexico Counties, the Pima Natural Resources Conservation District (NRCD), the Whitewater Draw NRCD, and People for the West strongly urged the agency to reverse its decision that critical habitat is “prudent” for jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico. The letter shows that under the ESA, and based solely on the best science available, habitat “essential” to the jaguar’s existence does not exist in the United States. Furthermore, studies have proven that well managed livestock grazing poses no threat to jaguars or their habitat.

“The Department of Interior just announced a new policy favoring sound science over political misconduct,” said SACPA president Cindy Coping. “To honor their own policy the USFWS must reverse their unsound but politically fashionable decision that won’t help the jaguar and does threaten to destroy hundreds of rural jobs in two states.”

A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) inquiry revealed that the agency’s decision relied heavily on a 2005 conference presentation that lacked supporting data and fails to meet the ESA definition of minimum scientific standards.

Another public records search revealed that an employee of the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) authorized a $999.99 payment to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) to create a jaguar habitat model for New Mexico. The CBD’s model was a substitute for, and produced conclusions far different from, the sound scientific conclusions already published by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. The CBD had a then recent history of publishing maliciously false information about endangered species and livestock grazing. That charge, proven in court, was already a matter of widespread public knowledge when the AGFD employee engaged the CBD to produce a substitute habitat model for New Mexico.

“The payment itself, one cent below the level we understand requires Commission approval, raises serious questions about the AGFD employee’s intentions,” Coping said. “These issues involve authority and abuse of such, improper bias, conflict of interest, and the unprecedented extraterritorial extension of AGFD authority over the State of New Mexico,” wrote Dennis Parker, the wildlife biologist/attorney who authored the comments.” These facts alone warrant suspension of any critical habitat designation for the jaguar in the United States until this serious situation is fully investigated and explained,” he added. At least two of the supposed “verified” jaguars mentioned in the Arizona habitat models were likely not naturally occurring, but rather, animals of foreign origin captured and imported into the United States for the purpose of “guaranteed” hunting. At least 9 such imported jaguars were introduced into New Mexico in 1972 and 1973 alone, including at least one female that escaped. Recent journal published studies from Brazil prove that both the range and numbers of jaguars expanded where domestic livestock were introduced, due to the more dependable prey base. In fact, Brazilian cattle ranches support the highest densities and numbers of jaguars found anywhere. Moreover, both the historic and the recent record of transient jaguar occurrences in the Southwest indicate that modern, highly controlled livestock grazing poses no threat to the few jaguars that sometimes wander across the Mexican border onto neighboring Arizona and New Mexico ranchlands.

All of the citizen organizations represented in the carefully documented letter sent to the USFWS care deeply about the management of landscapes in Arizona and New Mexico where ranching has been and continues to be the dominant land use keeping habitat largely intact and undeveloped for more than 300 years.


For more information, please contact Cindy Coping, SACPA president, at (303) 905-4041.

Read the full 15-page report here.

Some excerpts from the report:

“While one transient male jaguar, Macho B, did roam the borderlands of Arizona and Sonora for more than a decade until last year, his extensive travels prior to his death indicates he was having a difficult time surviving in this dry, rugged region. Moreover, his persistent presence in the borderlands was also artificially induced by the placement of female jaguar scent (in the form of scat of captive females in season) at camera locations on the United States side of the boundary with Mexico.”

“Finally, if Arizona and New Mexico actually qualified as critical habitat, or habitat “essential” to the existence of the jaguar as a species, then both common sense and objective science would necessarily demand that, at a minimum, female jaguars be shown to reside in those States. The facts conclusively show that they do not and that no female jaguar has been shown to occur in Arizona, even on a highly questionable and suspect basis, since 1963. The facts also reveal that no [wild] female jaguar has been verified to have occurred in New Mexico — ever.”

This is just one more example of why we should Repeal the Endangered Species Act.

Repeal the Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) should be repealed because it provides no positive incentive for conservation, it tramples on property rights, it destroys industries, it is very expensive, and it is ineffective. The ESA should be replaced with a voluntary, non-regulatory, incentive-based act. Make conservation profitable.

Currently 1,160 animals and 796 plants are listed as threatened or endangered. An additional 248 species are candidates for listing, and 47 more species have been proposed for listing, according to the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) (aren’t fish wildlife?). After 37 years and billions of dollars, of all the species that were listed, only 47 have been removed from the list, of which 18 were removed due to erroneous original data, nine became extinct, and the remaining 20 are considered recovered. Those recoveries, however, were due to factors that were either not related to, or predated ESA. For instance, recovery of the American peregrine falcon, arctic peregrine falcon, and brown pelican is attributed to the banning of DDT according to the FWS.

The fundamental problem with ESA is that the FWS has no legal requirement nor incentive to consider economic consequences or private property rights. The ESA is administered as an “absolute” law, holding precedence over all other land usage and in the process “taking” private property rights. The law forbids the killing, trapping, harming or harassing of endangered species, and the courts have broadly interpreted those prohibitions. The FWS could regard the entire country as critical habitat for something because there is no incentive not to, and to do so, just increases their power. This lack of accountability is a recipe for abuse by a bureaucracy run amok. The ESA tramples on private property rights more than any other federal statute. Under the ESA, individual Americans have been prevented from building homes, plowing fields, filling ditches, cutting trees, clearing brush, and repairing fences, all on private land. The federal government has even barred private landowners from clearing firebreaks to protect their homes from fire hazards or defending themselves against invasion by wild animals such as grizzly bears.

The result is that property owners regard endangered species as enemies and consciously manage their land, when they can, to eliminate or discourage a species’ presence. The Third Amendment to the Constitution explicitly forbids the federal government, even in the name of national defense, from requiring that a citizen quarter a soldier (that is, provide food and shelter for a soldier). Yet the government can require the same citizen to quarter a grizzly bear, certain plants, or a pygmy owl at the landowner’s expense. This proscription of use without compensation is seen by many to be contrary to the Fifth amendment which says in part “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” But that is exactly what ESA does.

The cost of ESA goes beyond dollars. We have witnessed the virtual elimination of timbering on federal lands and the death of communities which depended on logging. Millions of acres have been put off-limits to grazing, mining, farming. The ESA is so powerful that even fraudulent data was sufficient to ruin many Klamath, Oregon, farmers when water was denied them due to an alleged danger to listed species.

More recently, farmers in California’s lush San Joaquin Valley were denied water because the pumps might harm a small fish, the delta smelt. Dams and irrigation projects had turned the area into some of the world’s richest farmland. “But today the San Joaquin Valley is being transformed into a dust bowl. Hundreds of thousands of acres are fallow, while almond and plum trees are being left to die in the scorching sun. Tens of thousands of people have been tossed out of work—the town of Mendota alone has an unemployment rate of about 40%—and the lines for food donations stretch down streets. The reason? There isn’t enough water to go around this year, and the Obama administration is drawing up new reasons to divert more of it from farms and people and into the San Francisco Bay.” (WSJ)

An example closer to home concerns the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the Salt River Project (SRP) in Phoenix. It illustrates both the power and lack of common sense in ESA administration. This flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus) is a subspecies not recognized in the two major birding books: Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds (1990 edition); and The Sibley Guide to Birds, published by the National Audubon Society (2000). The Salt River Project is a series of reservoirs, one of which is Roosevelt Lake, that supply water to and generate electricity for the Phoenix area. When this subspecies of flycatcher was declared endangered in 1995, there were only 55 reported at Roosevelt Lake. However, during several drought years, the lake level dropped and exposed more river bottom habitat use by the flycatchers and more appeared. FWS forbade the Salt River Project from refilling the reservoir since that would destroy habitat. To regain the use of its reservoir, SRP had to spend millions of dollars to acquire about 1,500 acres of suitable habitat elsewhere to offset what filling the reservoir would have taken. That cost about $15 million, about $9million will be to protect endangered species on the Verde River and Horseshoe Lake.

The ESA contributed to the death of fire fighters because Forest Service officials were worried about taking water from a stream that might harbor an “endangered” fish. The sad condition of our national forests and the devastation of raging wildfires are attributable to ESA’s affect on management decisions within federal agencies, and delays caused by hundreds of lawsuits by radical environmentalist. The ESA has even threatened the ability of our military to properly train.

The ESA is a boon to lawyers. According to attorney Karen Budd-Falen, “Species are listed by a petition process, which means that anyone can send a letter to the federal government asking that a species, either plant or animal, be put on the ESA list. The federal government has 90 days to respond to that petition, no matter how frivolous. If the federal government fails to respond in 90 days, the petitioner – in the vast majority of cases, radical environmental groups – can file litigation against the federal government and get its attorneys fees paid. The simple act of filing litigation does not mean the species will get listed or that it is warranted to be protected; this litigation is only over whether the federal government failed to respond to the petition in 90 days. Between 2000 and 2009, in just 12 states and the District of Columbia, 14 environmental groups filed 180 federal court complaints to get species listed under the ESA and were paid $11,743,287 in attorneys fees and costs.” The act of responding to lawsuits causes government biologists to spend much less time on conservation work.

Bad science has characterized species listing under ESA. For instance, in southern Arizona, the listing of the pygmy owl ignored its abundance in its core area of Mexico and South America. Arizona riparian areas represent a fringe habitat. The owl’s true riparian habitat has not existed in Tucson for 100 years, and the little critters now seem to favor suburbia. While core habitat may deserve protection, splinter groups in peripheral areas are ephemeral and need not receive special attention to preserve the species.

The bad science is abetted by the definition of “endangered species” in the Act itself: “any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species or vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.” This definition causes certain subspecies, such as the pygmy owl, to be legally listed as “endangered” when in fact, it is not.

Congress should repeal the Endangered Species Act and replace it with a program that respects property rights and provides a positive incentive for conservation. Stop associating conservation with penalties, instead make it profitable.