The Sonoran Pronghorn can run 60 miles per hour, but can it outrun an out-of-control Bush Administration building border walls
By Brenda Norrell
AJO, Arizona – The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge visitor center looks like a typical national park office from the outside. Inside, however, the mysteries unfold of the Sonoran Desert, the endangered Sonoran pronghorn and the delicate complexion of the desert ecosystem.
In this sleepy town of used clothing stores and Mexican auto insurance offices, the wildlife refuge visitor center is an oasis of natural wonders.
Straddling the wildlife refuge is the refuge’s evil non-biological twin: the Barry M. Goldwater Airforce Range, known as the Bombing Range.
In this area, a small herd of the rare and endangered Sonoran pronghorn roam. Beyond the US/Mexico border, in the state of Sonora, Mexico, a larger herd roams. Fences are the biggest threat to the survival of pronghorns, according to US Fish and Wildlife.
Pronghorns, the fastest animal in North America, do not jump, they run into walls and fences when panicked.
With the Bush Administration declaring that it is “God of the Universe,” and that no federal laws apply to border wall construction, border walls and barriers in all sizes and shapes are suddenly appearing, without public input or environmental assessment.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived all federal laws protecting the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in October, located to the east of here on the Arizona border. Chertoff disavowed a federal court ruling temporarily halting construction at San Pedro, which is a World Heritage Natural Area, designated by the United Nations.
The San Pedro fiasco was the third time the Real ID Act of 2005 was used to eradicate all federal laws that get in the way of building the US/Mexico border wall. The Real ID Act was first used in San Diego in 2005, then at the Barry Goldwater Range. Among the laws waived: the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.
In January, Chertoff used Real ID to direct the construction of a double-layered border wall on the Goldwater range, detrimental to the pronghorns and other wildlife. Instead of a vehicle barrier, which would have been less harmful to wildlife, Chertoff mandated a double-layered fence.
The US Congress passed the REAL ID Act of 2005 as Division B of the act, “Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief, 2005.” This legislation was touted as an act to deter terrorism.
Critics, however, say it was manipulated fear-mongering, aimed at producing a tool to eliminate all federal laws for the purpose of corporate profiteering and far-reaching government control.
For endangered species, the Read ID is a real nightmare, the equivalent of open season on biological treasures.
Endangered species weren’t the only obstacles Homeland Security disregarded to build border walls and border barriers. The Bush Administration and Homeland Security dug up American Indian ancestors from their final resting places. Border wall contractor Boeing dug up the ancestors of the Tohono O’odham in Arizona, to build a border barrier in 2007.
Earlier, Kumeyaay in California protested construction of the border wall, saying it would “plow through the graves" of their ancestors. Although it violated the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act and American Indian Religious Freedom Act, construction continued.
At Cabeza, now there is the magic and wonder. Visitors are told that the Sonoran Desert has more species than any other arid region in the world. The cryptobiotic “skin” of the desert is composed of algae, bacteria and lichen. Like a human skin, it is delicate and wounds can take generations to heal. If you pour water on it and wait, it will turn green.
Unique on this planet is the pronghorn -- Antilocapra americana – which means “American antelope goat.” However, it is neither an antelope nor a goat. “The pronghorn is the only surviving member of an ancient family dating back 20 million years. The Sonoran Pronghorn (A. a. sonorensis) is one of five subspecies in western North America.
“It is perhaps America’s most endangered mammal,” according to Cabeza.
The Sonoran pronghorn is found only here in the United States, in the area around Ajo, south of Phoenix, near the border. It is also found in the state of Sonora, Mexico. In the United States, there are about 100 Sonoran pronghorns, while in Mexico, one herd numbers 15 to 20, while another numbers 300 to 400 pronghorns.
“They never learned to jump over even low barriers,” Cabeza says.
Here at Cabeza, an enclosure for breeding is an attempt to ensure the herds survival. The recovery plan includes a captive breeding program and transplant strategy. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife says that in 2002, after a lack of rainfall and “land use activities,” the Ajo herd dwindled to 21 pronghorn.
However, after capturing seven pronghorns in Mexico for the Arizona herd in 2004, four died of reactions to the capture and another died of a medical problem. After the capture myopathy (resulting from overexertion in the capture), the program was shut down. Still, two survived to live in the 640-acre natural environment on the refuge, fenced to keep out predators. An Arizona Sonoran male pronghorn was captured and placed with the two females. New fawns have been seen outside the enclosure.
However, there’s the lingering question of the bombs. As the visitor center’s video rolls, the speaker tells how the Airforce and its bombers have the right to the airspace above the wildlife refuge. The refuge controls only the natural resources on the ground.
“Now, how does that work?” I ask the staff. “Are the pronghorns being bombed?”
The explanation went like this: The Airforce bombers only turn around in the airspace over the wildlife refuge. Further, the bombers do not engage with ground targets if pronghorns are in the area on the rest of the bombing range.
It is an interesting concept, but seems pretty bizarre, considering how pronghorns dart around at 60 miles per hour. This desert bombing range -- 1.3 million acres -- is also home to desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and a cornucopia of biological life.
Recently, I asked a wildlife official in Arizona about the migration of the pronghorns and how a border wall would effect their migrations, since they run with lightning speed and slam into walls when panicked.
The official said that the United States does not really want their US Sonoran pronghorns migrating south of the border to Mexico because of the busy traffic on the Mexican highway running along the border to the south. The United States also has some questions about the grazing and adaptation of the US pronghorns, should they elect to give up their US citizenship and join the larger crowd of pronghorns south of the border. (This all had the sound of “No way I’m telling you the truth, because if Homeland Security finds out, I’m finished.”)
This wildlife official said the US Sonoran pronghorns have adapted to the rainfall and grasses here and to their bombing neighbors.
With Cabeza’s 391 plant species and 300 kinds of wildlife, Cabeza is also home to the endangered Lesser long-nosed bats. The Lesser long nosed bats caused a stir around the new non-functional Boeing border spy tower in Arivaca.
With the spy tower's layers of radar and microwave transmissions, high tech equipment and generator, questions were raised about the effect on the bats' hunting abilities, since the bats use echolation (bouncing sound) to hunt. The spy tower is being protested as a violation of privacy. At one time there was hope that environmental laws might save the day.
However, the bats, along with the pronghorns and jaguars along the border of Arizona, are now facing the heavy-hand of power that is slam-dunking all environmental laws to construct the US/Mexico border wall.
There’s more disturbing information in the Cabeza literature. Besides Cabeza hosting “a limited desert bighorn sheep hunt,” there’s a note of caution about the live bombs. Cabeza’s information says the military has used this as a gunnery and bombing range since World War II and many types of ordnances remain buried and on the surface.
“You may encounter unexploded ordnance,” Cabeza warns. Visitors are directed not to touch those and report the live bombs to the refuge staff.
Of course, one has to wonder, what does a pronghorn do when it encounters an unexploded bomb.
Wildlife refuges and bombing range hardly seem like good neighbors. However, Arizona seems to like the fraternity.
Further to the west in Arizona, between Yuma and nowhere, the Yuma Proving Ground is where the military tests missiles and long range weapons. It is right next to another wildlife refuge, the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.
On the 80-mile stretch between Quartzite and Yuma, the only sign of life is Stone Cabin, (literally a stone cabin) where a food vendor sells buffalo burgers. Outside of Quartzite, there were a few scattered campers, stuck here and there in the creosote bushes. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live there, with no sign of water, electricity or anything else. It looked like the set for a B-rated “end of the world” movie. I was so anxious to get out of that area, that I couldn’t stand the thought of a ten-minute wait for a burger.
“You have to drive through the Proving Ground to get to the wildlife refuge,” I was told, after seeing a military tank with gunnery, painted in murky green camouflage, stopped at a stop sign.
Another time, thanks.
Photos: Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Ajo, Arizona/Photos by Brenda Norrell