Texas is a big place, a state so large that plenty of remote and rugged areas can't be accessed without an off-road, four-wheel-drive vehicle. Some of the most rugged country is accessible only on foot or by horseback, including most of the 900 miles of the porous Texas-Mexico border.
It's been called by a lot of names. Some refer to it the frontera, or frontier. Others have referred to it as the last frontier. To most, however, it is known simply as the Borderlands, a long but narrow stretch of real estate that straddles the Rio Grande River starting on the tip of Texas near Brownsville and reaching northwest as far as the Texas-New Mexico state line north of El Paso.
This stretch of land narrows as it reaches major cities and international crossing ports along the border and then widens greatly on both sides as it snakes its way north through wide open and extremely remote and rugged country. At its widest point, this imaginary frontier stretches from near Midland-Odessa to near the capital city of Chihuahua, Mexico, and includes the vast and rugged Big Bend region and the bulk of the Chihuahua desert in parts of Texas, Northern Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona.
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The socio-economic challenges associated with the Borderlands are both complex and numerous. In the most remote areas of Texas, for example, there are more federal Customs and Border Protection agents than there are permanent residents. The region is conflicted with drug trafficking and human smuggling. It is also the focal point for smuggling arms and munitions from the U.S. to illegal buyers in Mexico.
As such, it is the wilderlands, a place regularly frequented not only by undocumented immigrants and seasoned smugglers but also where tensions constantly run high between law enforcement and criminals. Illegal activities from drug and human smuggling to illegal arms sales often threaten the safety and well being of the few ranching and farming families who live and manage to survive in the harsh, rustic region.
It is also a place where thousands of animals of every type cross the river regularly, along with thousands of undocumented immigrants. Deer herds and stray and feral cattle travel out of Mexico and into Texas in numbers large and small; others types of wildlife also cross the river in both directions daily.
Remote and rugged
Considering how remote and rugged the landscape, public health officials have recognized for more than a century how important it is to monitor the borderlands to reduce the chance of plant and animal diseases crossing the Texas border. In modern times, in the face of current global terror threats, keeping the nation's food safe has become more important than ever before.
The USDA-APHIS Cattle Fever Tick Eradication Program is headquartered in Laredo and serves as the regional office for a group of "mounted tick riders." For over 100 years these riders, a group of specially trained and mounted inspectors, have combed the rugged backcountry of the border region in search of stray cattle and horses and smugglers who constantly attempt to bring illegal animals across the Rio Grande.
Of concern is the movement of Mexican ticks and other insects that can rapidly spread bovine babesiosis, or Texas Cattle Fever, a disease that has historically troubled the cattle industry in the Southern United States and devastated cattle operations in Texas on more than one occasion.
USDA research entomologist Joe Mathews Pound says a lot of diseases are spread by parasites of many types, and ticks are notorious for clinging to their hosts and transmitting a variety of bacteria and viruses.
"We have had several cases of Equine Piroplasmosis reported in West Texas in recent years from horses that came across the Mexican border. This is just one disease that can be spread by ticks," Pound says.
In addition to the famed "tick riders," another mounted team has been at work in the Borderlands. Members of the Texas Animal Health Commission's Horseback Team have recently been working with the USDA Horseback riders in rounding up border strays.
TAHC officials say nearly 300 head of stray and feral cattle— animals that had obviously wandered across the river into border areas on the Texas side of the border—were recently rounded up near Langtry, Texas, in Val Verde, County.
Throughout the spring and summer season the TAHC Team was busy assisting federal efforts to round up undocumented animals that had entered the state from Mexico. State and federal animal health officials say such efforts are necessary to protect the state's animal population from disease threats such as tuberculosis and brucellosis commonly found in Mexico.
"It was great to partner with our friends at USDA in gathering stray cattle. I look forward to working with them more in the future. We share the same goal of protecting the health of Texas' livestock and serving and protecting our great state's livestock commerce," said Ty Billings, TAHC Region 5 inspector and horseback response team member.
The Horseback Emergency Response Team is the only state team of its kind in the United States. The Team recently received the Emergency Management Association of Texas' (EMAT) award for Excellence in Emergency Management.
The team of approximately 25 responders includes TAHC livestock inspectors and USDA mounted patrol inspectors. The team locates, contains, identifies and moves stray or feral livestock in the aftermath of a disaster, or when they pose an animal health or public safety threat.
"The Horseback Team is a testament of the TAHC's dedication, innovation and commitment to serve the citizens of Texas. We are proud to have a horse team available to help protect the State's cattle industry from possible disease threats," said Dr. Dee Ellis, Executive Director for TAHC.
Ellis, the Texas State Veterinarian, often rides with the mounted team when time allows or duty calls. He says the mounted riders are capable of moving into areas inaccessible by vehicle. Without their age-old tradition of "cowboying the border," the danger and threat of animal and plant diseases getting a foothold in Texas would be more complicated.