RESEARCHERS NEED PROTECTION ON BORDER
Theft and violence on their minds
Border crossers, smugglers raise fears for safety
By Anne Minard
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Karen Krebbs had an armed escort while she was out nights last week at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
She's not a law-enforcement agent and she doesn't dabble in anything illegal. She's a conservation biologist with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, studying an endangered population of nectar-feeding bats.
Researchers along Arizona's border these days must balance their desire to study wildlife in the Sonoran Desert - where the chance to observe long-protected desert-dwelling populations proves an irresistible lure - with a growing fear of theft by desperate border crossers or violence from drug and people smugglers.
The fears are fueled by a surge of assaults this year on Border Patrol agents and by some close calls involving researchers: stolen cars, a work trailer hauled into Mexico before it was recovered and a University of Arizona student robbed at gunpoint.
Hikers, birders and other nature lovers generally are allowed to visit wildlife preserves without restrictions because they're responsible for their own safety. But scientists visit public preserves under special permits from the parks - so managers feel the need to protect them as if they're staff members. Compounding the threat is that researchers often work in isolated areas at night. Many wear uniforms and drive marked cars, making them look like law-enforcement officers who sometimes are targeted for violence.
As a result, researchers in most parks along the border must be accompanied by park personnel or agree to a buddy system, must check in with park officials daily and must - on request - clear out of key research areas until threats pass.
Scientists themselves are making changes, too. They spend more time on paperwork and less on important research, applying for multiple grants that add up to enough money to hire extra personnel so they don't have to work alone. Some are quietly packing guns, even in National Park Service lands where they're illegal.
All that means a diminished focus on border wildlife populations such as pygmy owls and pronghorn, often protected in the preserves, that need to disperse north from Mexico to find new habitat.
"A lot of the species of great interest in Arizona are these Mexican border species," said Cecil Schwalbe, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist.
When Schwalbe started teaching his yearly field-safety course at the UA eight years ago, threats from people along the border merited "just a minor mention," he said. "Now it's stressed."
The criminal element
There's no question the border is getting rougher.
The Tucson Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol - which stretches from the New Mexico border almost to California - has documented 216 assaults against its officers this fiscal year, which started in October. That's up from 118 for all of last fiscal year, 115 in 2003 and 146 in 2002. The numbers are up partly because there are more officers on staff, Border Patrol spokesman Jose Garza said. But they're still worrisome.
"The assaults are also going up in severity," he said. "In the outskirts, they're using the vehicles to try to ram our agents, shooting our agents in an attempt to avoid arrest."
Of 383,413 apprehensions so far this year, records checks on 28,900 of the people involved revealed criminal backgrounds. Because some arrestees are repeat border crossers, the proportion of criminals is actually higher than it looks, Garza said.
"We are catching a lot of bad elements," he said. "We're catching murderers. We're catching sexual predators."
But James Cain, a UA doctoral student who studies desert bighorn sheep at Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, said he has encountered crossers just three times in four years - never with any problems.
"Odds are, they're just people coming across to work," he said. "But you never know."
At Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, manager Mitch Ellis tells his staff biologists to wear nondescript T-shirts rather than uniforms when they're out doing field research so they aren't mistaken for law enforcement.
Researchers visiting the preserve must let law-enforcement officers know when they'll be there and check in daily.
Ellis advises them to let their vehicles go if crossers try to steal them. It's better than risking a confrontation with people who have reached a point of desperation, he tells them.
Aside from the robbery, which didn't result in any injuries, vehicle thefts are about the worst incidents researchers have experienced. But a couple of hunters were assaulted last fall and "one Mexican national was shot in the back a couple of months ago because he got too close to a drug load," Ellis said.
At Cabeza Prieta, researcher Cain always gives officials an itinerary: "I check in using the radio or a sat (satellite) phone every day. The deal is, if I miss two call-ins in a row, they'll come out looking for me."
When he has to hike into a study site because there are no roads, he stashes water in the bushes near the vehicle: "That way, if our truck is gone, we'll have water."
Oversight is the strictest at Organ Pipe. The monument's policy is to send armed law-enforcement officers with researchers going into some places, particularly those closest to the border. Sometimes research is kept out of certain areas altogether if there's been a spike in illegal activity there.
Worth the cost - for now
When UA natural-resources professor Paul Krausman worked in Texas' Big Bend National Park, a spate of shootings along the border drew officers who wanted to accompany him into the field.
Instead, he sneaked out to his study sites at night.
"There's no way you can observe animals with a SWAT team behind you," he said.
These days, he urges his students to cooperate with regulations and to take precautions. They listen, as he learned when he went through photos of a former student's field research for a presentation.
"I couldn't find a single picture of her in the file where she wasn't wearing a .357 on her hip," he said.
There are costs to protecting his students. On at least two projects, he's had to scramble to come up with about $25,000 apiece for extra part-time technicians so his researchers wouldn't have to go alone.
One project, to explore cross-border relationships among wildlife management agencies, never got off the ground because officials told him it was too dangerous for the researcher he wanted to assign - a lone female. A different researcher, also female, was shaken a few months ago after unidentified agents in unmarked cars chased her down and searched her.
But for researchers wanting to study species found only in the extreme deserts near the border, the risks are worth it.
Ryan Wilson, another of Krausman's graduate students, spends hours each day at Cabeza Prieta, watching an imperiled Sonoran pronghorn population in an enclosure set up by the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He's often alone in an isolated part of the refuge, but the enclosure affords him a singular chance to study the animals, whose numbers plummeted in the extreme drought of 2002.
"That's about as good an idea of their behavior as anyone's going to be able to get," he said.
He's seen six groups of border crossers since his arrival in January and said he tends to call authorities only because he fears for their well-being.
"If every day I was seeing people with machine guns, maybe I'd think twice," he said.
Unless it comes to that, scientists say they'll keep working along Arizona's border.
"It's really not the more carefree research it once was," said the Geological Survey's Schwalbe, who directs UA grad students in their studies of desert frogs and toads. But so far, he said, "we are adjusting."
What border problem?
It's 'OK' to break a law to prevent a greater crime (rape, murder).
Newsflash: Illegal aliens and drug dealers are trampling the pristine SW frontier! Scientists are packing guns for protection against crime, and simultaneously exercising their 2nd Amendment rights by defying Federal law to study wildlife on Federal land.
Where are the conservationists that say that the Citizens are destroying the
wildlife by hiking\camping. They don't have a problem with the illegals?
The illegals don't exactly pack out their trash............
Any guesses as to what would happen if a bunch of Citizens did this to LEOs?
Gotta love the Arizona daily red star.
Border crossers...THEY'RE ILLEGAL FUCKING ALIENS AND CRIMINALS !!