Desert Invasion - U.S.


Theft and violence on their minds

Anne Minard, Arizona Daily Star, August 7, 2005

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...

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...

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....

...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....

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