LAREDO — An unexpected casualty of the drug-cartel-fueled lawlessness in Mexico: the cattle industry.
At a temporary inspection site in the industrial sector of Laredo, home to the country’s largest inland port, the lowing of cows has been heard not far from the purring of the tractor-trailers that haul millions of dollars worth of goods from Mexico each day.
For about the last year, Mexican cattle have been examined here before being cleared for shipment to the rest of Texas and beyond — part of an effort to eradicate a fever tick infestation that has plagued ranchers along the border for more than a century.
The tick carries an anemia-causing parasite that preys on cattle blood cells and spreads bovine babesiosis, which causes fever, paralysis and often leads to death if left untreated. Until last year, the inspections took place in Mexico, and ticked cattle were kept from the U.S. But a ruthless battle between the Gulf and Los Zetas cartels in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas forced those inspection sites to close in March 2010.
“It’s become too dangerous for the veterinarians to conduct their inspections on the cattle that are going to be imported into Texas from Mexico,” said Roland Garcia, a Texas Ranger commissioned by the Department of Public Safety and the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
“That’s why these temporary pens in Laredo and Pharr have been established. I don’t know how long ‘temporary’ could be. It depends on how things settle out in Mexico.”
The inspection site is not the only modification being made because of cartel violence. The U.S. government takes the lead on regulating cattle in the “buffer,” or permanent quarantine, zone, where fever ticks thrive. It stretches more than 500 miles across the Texas border from Del Rio to Brownsville, an area of about 550,000 acres.
Temporary zones are also established if an outbreak spreads beyond that. Ed Bowers, the United States Department of Agriculture’s director of field operations for the Cattle Fever Tick Eradication Program, said the zone is currently 1.5 million acres, including a large swath of Dimmit and Starr counties.
Bowers and his 97-member staff compose the USDA's fever tick riders, who patrol hundreds of miles of Texas border on horseback searching for infested stray Mexican cattle. Recent floods that have destroyed natural barriers and man-made fences have enabled their migration past the border, potentially aiding in the spread of the tick. And the tick riders have been forced to adjust their routes farther away from the border.
“We don’t do our patrol like we did a year ago, which was visible to Mexico and riding right down the riverbank,” Bowers said. “We don’t make a target of ourselves, but we still have to patrol that permanent quarantine zone and make sure there aren’t any Mexican strays.”
The economic consequences of an extended outbreak in Texas could be dire. An infestation outside the current quarantine zones — even one considered relatively small by industry experts — would still cost $123 million in the first year alone, according to a study conducted in 2010 by the Agricultural & Food Policy Center at Texas A&M University. An outbreak spreading to the historic range that includes Texas, a portion of California and 12 Southern states east to Florida and north to Virginia would cost about $1.2 billion in the first year, according to the study.
Texas would have the most to lose, as it currently has more than 13.3 million head of cattle, including 5.14 million beef cows, representing 16.4 percent of the nation’s total. The value of the livestock is about $11.7 billion. Todd Staples, the Texas commissioner of agriculture, estimates that Texas imported about 512,000 feeder cattle from Mexico in 2010, or about half of the 1.2 million the country imported.
The economic potential of the industry explains the activity level at the inspection site in Laredo. Dr. Beall Barbee, the port veterinarian with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and his crew of six go through painstaking procedures to inspect every head of cattle imported from Mexico. A herd of six to eight feeder cattle, each weighing between 300 and 500 pounds, is corralled into a pen, and their heads, ears, bellies, rears and topsides are manually inspected. Then, one by one, they are forced into a dipping vat of pesticide, herded in to a pen to dry and shipped off to their buyers.
“It’s poisonous enough that you don’t want any on you,” Barbee said last week of the pesticide. “But there’s not a lot to the process. We just need to make sure they don’t have any ticks on them. The goal is not to find any, and some days we don’t.” Adding to the safety concerns are the looming budget woes in Austin and Washington, which could affect the program.
“You know how Washington is,” Bowers said. “Even with the best minds hoping, that doesn’t mean that Congress might not cut,” he said. “But I would say that all indications are that they would support us as much as they could.”
If financing levels remain close to the current $13 million allocated annually for the project, that should allow what Bowers characterizes as the continued success of the program to proceed with release of almost two thirds of the temporary zone.
His confidence is not matched in Austin. As budget writers there grapple with a projected shortfall that could exceed $25 billion, the state’s contribution to the fever tick eradication efforts could be scaled back significantly. The Texas Animal Health Commission plays a lesser role, but it assists the USDA on the riverbanks and throughout the infested areas in South Texas. Preliminary budget recommendations show the agency facing a cut of about $2.6 million of its current budget, but the financing mechanism is changing from entirely general-revenue funds to a partial fee-based model, which puts the onus on the agency to sustain its own financing.
“We took the position that we weren’t going to question the politics or the budgetary considerations and just try and solve the problem,” said Dr. Dee Ellis, the state veterinarian. “If we are unsuccessful, if we had to accept the proposed budget cuts of about 50 percent of our agency, it would absolutely impact the fever tick program.”