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Lines in the Land: A Pesky Plant on the Rio Grande Attracts Federal Attention

Carrizo cane covering the banks of the Rio Grande. (Ian Lewis/KRTS)

As the dividing line between Mexico and the United States, the Rio Grande has been a stage for contentious geopolitics.

But for many years, the river has also had a turbulent ecological history. One persistent concern for scientists who study the borderlands of Texas has been an invasive plant species known as carrizo cane.

Unsurprisingly, carrizo cane was again a central topic of discussion at an Annual Sister Park Summit at Big Bend National Park between American and Mexican park officials from the other side of the river. The plant has muscled major control of the banks of the Rio Grande on both sides.

At the meeting was Joe Sirotnik, a botanist with the National Park Service

"Carrizo cane is a large grass species that is from the Mediterranean and it’s been here on the Rio Grande for at least fifty years, Sirotnik explains.

"Apparently it’s been only in the past thirty years that it’s become the dominant that it is. It’s an ecological problem because it’s so dominant that it doesn’t allow any other plant species to grow."

Damage from the plant may go even deeper. Scientists suggest that the plant may contribute to fundamentally changing the shape and flow of the river by anchoring sediment. This can minimize aquatic habitat and possibly even contribute to flood events during periods of large rainfall.

Not only are scientists like Sirotnik studying what carrizo cane has done, they’ve also been experimenting with ways to get rid of it.

"We started by literally going out with machetes and cutting it down, and then applying little sponge quantities of herbicide on the stems," details Sirotnik, "then we graduated to metal bladed weedwackers and did the same thing. We discovered that the best way to do it is burn it first and then when it regrows, spray it with a foliar herbicide."

But what has been a long running problem for scientists along the border, is now being recognized as a matter of federal security. House Homeland Security Chairman, Michael McCaul of Texas introduced a bill known as the “Secure Our Borders First Act of 2015” or HR 399. The bill calls for federally sponsored research and funding for carrizo cane eradication, among other major border policy changes.

According to the Bill, “the [carrizo cane] plant causes serious officer safety issues and operational concerns ….The plant also provides concealment to criminals, drug smugglers, illegal aliens, and potential terrorists who could use it as an advantage to enter the United States illegally.”

How did River cane appear on the radar of Homeland Security Lawmakers?

Kevin Urbancyzk has a theory. He leads the Rio Grande Research Center at Sul Ross State University.

"When Ciro Rodriguez was our congressman, one of my colleagues from Texas A&M had the good fortune of sitting next to him on a plane. This was maybe 5 years ago. He suggested that we apply for Homeland Security funding."

From that point, it seems the proposal for funding eradication incubated in Washington until it was picked up by the House Republicans this year.

If this major Homeland Security bill were able to pass into legislation, it’s implementation would create something of a paradox. That is, it would require major action on the part of Mexico as well.

"It is essential that we work on the Mexican and US sides, because you can’t just work on one side of the river and expect to have any ecological success," says Joe Sirotnik.

According to Mexican officials, they are committed to fighting it back.

Julio Carrera, Official for Mexico Protected Areas states, "For the last five or six years, we’ve been collaborating with the National Park Service in Big Bend to work on both sides of the river. The national goal is to go after exotics."

For now, it’s unclear if or how collaboration would take place with Mexico, and there’s another concern: carrizo cane is not seen as such as pest by everyone on the Mexican side.

Carrera explains, "The other challenge in Mexico is that there are communities within the protected areas and those communities use cane down on the river for roofs and other uses in their communities."

Though HR 399 calls for eradication, experts like Kevin Urbancyzk are cautious in even using that term. Instead, they have set their sights on more modest goals.

"There’s always going to be more cane, we are never going to get rid of it, but we can hold it back and try to get some other stuff in there."

Recently, The House of Representatives voted to table Congressman McCaul’s legislation and experts remain divided about its chances of being enacted into law. For researchers and park officials along the border, fighting the carrizo cane remains a constant labor, and that seems certain to continue.

- Ryan Lentini