WASHINGTON – The Quitobaquito desert pupfish has been without an audience for three years,and there is no indication the endangered species will be seen by visitors to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument anytime soon.
The tiny pupfish – males turn bright blue during the spring mating season – live in Quitobaquito Pond along the U.S.-Mexican border in southern Arizona. The pond is amid one-third of the monument's 330,000 acres closed to the public because of safety concerns posed by illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
Organ Pipe is located about 100 miles west of Tucson. Approximately 7,000 illegal immigrants were caught on Organ Pipe land last year,said monument Superintendent Kathy Billings,and half of the site's annual budget goes directly to problems caused by illegal immigration.
Billings said visitors often express disappointment at being barred from the desert oasis – the only location in the United States the pupfish naturally inhabits – but she did not know when they could reopen the area. The number of visitors to the monument has dropped from 412,000 in 1995,when the public had access to the border site,to 280,000 in 2005.
“The public always loved going to that place,” she said.
The pupfish is just one natural wonder of Arizona's federal borderlands made inaccessible to visitors by illegal activity. Visitors to Organ Pipe's neighbor,the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge,are less likely to catch a glimpse of the Sonoran pronghorn antelope. The endangered subspecies is the fastest four-legged animal in North America,and it resides only in the Sonoran Desert.
Cabeza Prieta is home to 27 pronghorns in its captive breeding program and 75 more inhabit the Sonoran Desert,said refuge manager Roger Di Rosa. He said it was unclear to what extent illegal immigration has affected the pronghorns,but a negative impact is evident.
Illegal aliens have damaged facilities created for recovery of the subspecies,including fences and water holes,and disturbed the creatures' natural habitat.
“All the activity causes them stress during the summer draughts when water and vegetation are at their lowest levels,” he said.
Cabeza Prieta has not closed any of its 860,000 remote acres to the public,but safety concerns have changed visitors' use of the land. Curious nature lovers,who once explored by foot,now are likely to remain safely in their cars. This reduces the risk of their vehicle being stolen or vandalized,but it also lowers their chance of seeing the pronghorn.
“People are missing the wilderness experience,” Di Rosa said. “To put a pack on your back and hike into the wilderness where you might sit in the mountains by a big horned sheep watering hole – you're not going to see that unless you hike out there.”
Di Rosa said those who do venture into Cabeza Prieta are likely to see damage left by illegal aliens and drug smugglers. He estimated the refuge contains 250 miles of illegally created roads. Illegal activity also resulted in 7,500 acres being burned last year – a number Di Rosa called “unheard of.” Last year was the first in Di Rosa's memory that Cabeza Prieta called in fire crews.
“Illegal aliens get into the area and become stressed by the lack of water and food,” he said. “Then they start fires,knowing someone will respond to the fire.”
Illegal border traffic has changed the experience at Coronado National Forest,in Arizona's southeastern corner,too. Agents policing Coronado's 60 miles of border seized more than 100,000 pounds of marijuana and caught 35,000 illegal aliens last year.
John Twiss,director of law enforcement and investigations for the U.S. Forest Service,said no section of Coronado has been closed to the public,but he has noticed a shift in the areas people are using.
“Some wilderness areas,which are very popular for people wanting to get away,they are avoiding because of the potential to run into drug smugglers,” he said.
Twiss said hunting is one activity enthusiasts are doing with much more caution or,in some cases,avoiding altogether.
“You can imagine hunting grouse and running into a drug smuggler in the woods,” he said. “Because you're carrying a gun,the armed smuggler might think you're going to steal his drugs.”
Ironically,border security efforts have caused as much disturbance to federal lands along Arizona's border as the illegal activity they are trying to stop.
Billings said U.S. Customs and Border Protection agreed this year to help pay for road maintenance in Organ Pipe,needed because of the roads' frequent use by its agents. Di Rosa said at Cabeza Prieta,border patrol traffic and daily helicopter passes have altogether changed the atmosphere.
“It's lost a lot of its wilderness character,” he said. “If the Cabeza Prieta were proposed for wilderness designation today,it would not meet the criteria. There's too much disturbance.”