Since 2003, there has been a 750 percent increase in fever-tick infestations in South Texas, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: There were 19 confirmed cases back then but 146 in 2009. It’s the worst situation in 37 years.
The war between the tick — which carries an anemia-causing parasite that preys on cattle blood cells and bloats cattle organs, oftentimes leading to their inevitable death — and the ranchers and government officials charged with thwarting its migration past the permanent quarantine or “buffer” zone has lasted more than a century. The permanent zone stretches roughly 500 miles, from Del Rio to Brownsville. As needed, temporary quarantine zones are established if the tick is found outside that area.
Last spring, when 300,000 acres in Dimmitt and Webb counties were released from temporary quarantine, ranchers and state animal-health officials declared victory over the tick, which was relegated back to the border territory where it had been kept at bay for decades. But the victory was short-lived. In less than three months, says Ed Bowers, the USDA's director of field operations for the Cattle Fever Tick Eradication Program, the zone was expanded again: In Starr County, 157,000 more acres were added in Sullivan City. Bob Hillman, the former director of the Texas Animal Health Commission, said the additional quarantine in Starr was the fifth since July 2007. Also added was a total of about 150,000 acres stretching from the top of the temporary zone's southern border in Starr County to Highway 16 and between Highway 16 and the Webb-Zapata county line. (Highway 16 runs from slightly east of Falcon Lake, in Zapata, to Hebbronville, in northern Jim Hogg County.)
When all those acres are combined with what was already under quarantine, the numbers are staggering. All told, 1.5 million acres of Texas ranchland are under quarantine because of the tick.
"Patching the patches"
Ranchers in either the permanent or temporary quarantine zones are required by law to systematically dip their cattle or vacate the land to starve out the host. The options aren’t cheap, and outdated equipment hinders current efforts. “You’ve got a tick force that’s been pretty constant in size, and [ranchers] are using equipment that was worn out 20 years ago, and they’ve just patched it,” says Bill Hyman, the executive director of the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas. “The vats used to dip the cattle were manufactured probably 30 or 40 years ago, and nobody makes them anymore. They are portable, and they are just patched and patched and patched. Now we are patching the patches.”
Hyman estimates it costs a rancher about $250 per year per head of cattle to apply the treatment. Vacating is less costly, but it's contingent on having another piece of land outside the zone for cattle to graze. Both options are unnatural to the livestock. “It’s a cost to the producer," says Ernie Morales, the chairman of the Texas Animal Health Commission. "I think you can easily say that every time you move livestock and pin livestock, you have the risk of injury, you have weight loss, you have stress and you have the cost to gather them."
Cattle from the quarantine zones are still marketable, says Morales, provided they are declared tick-free. But the cost to comply with state and federal laws can decimate an individual rancher’s bottom line. “So those producers are just not putting cattle back on those ranches," he says. "It’s cost-prohibitive in the long run if you can’t control the tick problem.”
Bowers also has financial concerns. “You don’t ever know [the budget to fight the tick] from year to year,” he said. “[The feds] could always cut it, too. When the Dimmit county outbreak happened, we asked for $13 million for that alone.”
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, has led efforts to identify more funding, said Bowers and Hyman, and to spread awareness to the rest of the country about the financial repercussions an outbreak could have on the cattle industry. His office said more than $13 million was appropriated by Congress this fiscal year to deal with the problem and $9 million in the previous fiscal year. There was also an additional $5.2 million in discretionary funding to control outbreaks outside the permanent quarantine zone in 2009, says Cuellar's spokesman, Ashley Peterson.
The congressman has also asked Texas A & M University to research the financial impact a nationwide outbreak could have on Texas. Cuellar’s office said the study has not been completed, but in 2008, according to The Cattleman magazine, Dr. Raymond Dietrich, an agricultural economist at A&M, estimated an epidemic would cost the state’s cattle industry about $1.3 billion — 20 percent of its annual income.
What Morales fears is more ominous: an outright ban on Texas cattle. “Where we get into some devastation, as far as markets are concerned, is if the ticks get out of the state,” he says. For that reason, he argues, ranchers hundreds of miles away from the border should urge more funding and vigilance. “Our federal tick force [and] our state animal-health commission feel like we're not getting the support from the rest of the state and Washington, D.C. Texas moves a lot of cattle out, and if some were found to be ticky across state lines, that northern Texas producer is not going to be able to have commerce.”
Recovery would be slow, he says: “I'm afraid what would happen is we could have surrounding states quarantine us."
Molasses blocks, fences, and red tape
The fever tick isn’t particular. No cattle? No problem. White-tailed deer and other exotic animals play host to the parasite, and those aren’t monitored the way cattle are. “That’s the biggest problem we got,” Bowers says. “White-tailed deer don’t have pastures — they have territories that could affect several properties. And red deer from Mexico or any ruminant animal, basically, other than cattle that might stray out of Mexico can carry them across the quarantine line into the free area, where we have no surveillance.” Were it not for this alterative method of transport for the ticks, the quarantine zone would be smaller than the current 1.5 million acres.
There are some working solutions in place, though they could be expanded upon. “We talked about the ability to add a wormer, an Ivermectin-type of insecticide to a molasses block so that you can keep that out all the time,” Hyman says. “We now have a company to help us make it, and we are asking the USDA to help us get the approval process sped up.”
Bowers says one of the best ideas being investigated is a high fence along the permanent quarantine zone to keep out white-tailed deer. Construction would require a funding match from ranchers along the proposed route. “They gave us, I think, seven-hundred-and-something-thousand dollars and said, ‘Build half that 200 miles [of fence], but you got to do it as a 50/50 cost share with the landowners,’” Bowers remembers. “Well, you can recognize that south of Laredo there’s a whole lot of landowners, and not near all of them are going to be willing to spring for half of a high fence along the quarantine line. That would be a problem in itself.”
From there it turns into agency against agency. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stopped anything from happening until we get a complete environmental impact statement,” Bowers says. “Bureaucratic red tape has got us tied up. We know [the fence] works historically, so it’s not a question of, 'Would it keep the ticks out of the free areas?' Nothing is a 100 percent, but it’s pretty doggone good.” Bowers says that "red tape" could take as long as three to five years to cut through, and that lag time has led to the recent mandatory expansion of the quarantine zone. “You can tell them I said so,” he says.
Fish and Wildlife says it’s all a matter of following protocol. “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as a roadblock. It’s just standard review procedures for endangered species,” said Dawn Whitehead, the deputy field director for Fish anad Wildlife’s Corpus Christi office. “We just need to have USDA comply with Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act.” Section 7 requires federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife to “ensure that their actions do not jeopardize listed species or destroy or adversely modify critical habitat.”
Similar issues arose with the controversial Secure Fence Act of 2006, which mandated construction of hundreds of miles of wall to deter illegal immigration and drug smuggling. “Ocelots and jaguarundis are the primary species that we are concerned about, similar to the concerns we had over the border fence,” Whitehead says. “This fence would go in place so close to the border fence that it would create additional obstructions to these endangered cats.”
Whitehead says Fish and Wildlife has more work to do, but that the USDA’s assumed timeline might also be off. “We’ve had some discussions with staff, but I don’t think we’ve begun writing our biological opinion,” she says. “We have 120 days to complete it. Maybe [Bowers] thinks that some studies need to happen to provide the information, but I don’t think so.”
Ticks without borders
Bowers says that when the USDA launched its strategic plan to eradicate the tick, it included an emphasis on cooperating with Mexico. Stray cattle that come up from the south need to be inspected. Bowers counts more than a 100 patrolmen (about 60 of them permanent) who are part of the USDA’s famed fever tick riders contingent, which patrols more than 900 miles of hostile terrain on horseback in search of stray cattle. In the age of computer tablets, border cameras, and smart phones, the cowboys are old-school, each equipped with a horse, a rope and a sidearm (for protection) to ensure inspection of areas they say even a sports-utility vehicle can’t approach.
But pleas to Mexico to survey and account for its stray cattle often fall on deaf ears. “Basically, Mexico is still doing control work, which they do nationwide,” Bowers says. “They assist the landowners a little bit, just to try to keep the ticks down to where the animals don’t lose their resistance to the disease, but they don’t ever get rid of the ticks. A lot of that is window dressing, because we catch ticky Mexican strays on a regular basis.”
Hyman says Mexico has more to worry about than stray ticks, an argument bolstered by the daily war currently waged by drug cartels along the Texas-Mexico border. But shunning Mexico could also be counterproductive, as it is the only market for Gavac, the lone available fever-tick vaccine. “We are trying to get the State Department to approve bringing it in from Mexico,” says Morales. “It has some results that look positive, and we are ready to run some trials, so we need to think outside the box a little bit.”
The vaccine is not made in Mexico; it's only distributed there. So why not get it directly from the source? “It’s made in Cuba,” said Morales.
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.