New Mexico Ranchers Fear Sick Cows Could Enter U.S. Through Border Fences

Longtime New Mexico cattle rancher Judy Keeler is keenly aware of how tough it is to raise livestock in the dusty desert near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Drought, intense heat, security and illegal immigrants who cut down ranchers fences and drink water meant for livestock are constant concerns.

But Keeler and fellow ranchers now have another worry.

The border fence, installed by the Department of Homeland Security to keep cars and people from crossing into the United States illegally, isn't so good at blocking cattle in some places. The new fence replaced previous livestock fences at some points, and some stretches are so low that cows can step right over it.

And because regulations in Mexico are less strict, Mexican herds are more likely to have bovine tuberculosis and other communicable diseases.

"It's kind of a hodgepodge of fencing," said Keeler, president of the Hidalgo County Cattle Grower's Association in Hachita in southwest New Mexico. "The inconsistencies along the border is what I'm trying to get them to correct."

Some of the Mexican border states don't have the bovine TB-free disease status enjoyed by most of the U.S. border states, said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association in Albuquerque, N.M.

That could lead to disease spreading to U.S. cattle, threatening the nation's beef industry, although no infections blamed on Mexican cattle have been reported recently.

"It's a more lower level threat, but it only takes one cow to bring down the economy of the whole nation," said Jeff Witte, director of agriculture biosecurity at the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.

Agriculture officials in the border states of California and Arizona say they haven't heard complaints from ranchers on the issue of border fencing and livestock protection.

In Texas, a high fence along the border is needed to control the flow of wildlife and cattle from Mexico, said Susan Durham with the South Texans' Property Rights Association in Falfurrias, Texas. Disease concerns there include Cattle Fever Tick, a parasite eradicated from the United States 65 years ago that can transmit disease to cattle.

In New Mexico, complaints focus on differing heights and styles of fence.

While most people envision a 20-foot-tall fence all along New Mexico's border, Keeler said the fence at some points — where the barrier is meant to stop vehicles, not people on foot or cows — is only 3 feet high.

Some types of fence have high, closely placed steel beams, while others are a design of thick post and rail fencing.

Then there's what's called a Normandy barrier, where X-shaped steel beams have a middle rail to link the structures to stop vehicle traffic.

The type of fence for a given area was chosen based on topography, needs and cost, said Doug Mosier, spokesman for the Border Patrol's El Paso, Texas, sector, which includes 128 miles of fence in New Mexico and portions of two West Texas counties under its jurisdiction.

"Farmers and ranchers are happy to see the infrastructure in place," Mosier said. "This is the first major step that the U.S. government has taken to assess needs along the U.S. border, and there will be more to come."

Mosier said there was no fencing in some areas when they started the project last year, and some areas and fences that did exist were showing wear.

Barbed wire fences were replaced with better fences when the new barrier was installed, said Terry Kranz, assistant patrol agent in charge at the Border Patrol's Lordsburg station.

Witte said agencies and ranchers need to communicate to prevent disease.

First detector training courses, which bring together ranchers and law enforcement agencies, are important for ranchers dealing with livestock diseases, he said. The courses teach officers to look for signs of cattle illness, such as coughing and excessive mucus, and immediately contact area veterinarians.

"It was a way to get a number of eyes and ears out across the state and recognizing when there might be a disease issue," Witte said.

Ranchers, he said, "have a tremendous burden on their shoulders because they are in the region. They are on the forefront of our agricultural security."

U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., has formed a Border Security Task Force to identify border issues, and has held meetings about the border fence with ranchers and land agencies for years. At a recent meeting, ranchers decided team up with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture to present their priorities to government agencies.

Joe Johnson, whose New Mexico ranch — near Columbus in Luna County — shares its southern border with Mexico, said he was consulted on his fence needs before a Normandy barrier was installed on portions of his ranch.

The barrier is "still under the test" to see if will prevent Mexican cattle from crossing, he said.

"In most ways we got what we asked for," Johnson said. "Now we just have to wait and see how well it will be effective."