House committee OKs $500K to help ranchers continue grazing cattle along Rio Grande

Health

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — On the verge of being terminated as recently as May, a decades-old program that leases grazing land to South Texas ranchers along the Rio Grande could now get an additional $500,000 boost from Congress.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas (Courtesy Photo)

The House Appropriations Committee earlier this month voted to add the funds, which would help register and re-register ranching families into the program. The money would also pay for additional staffing at the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), the agency that ensures the leased lands are being properly used and renegotiates new leases with family members of deceased ranchers who hold the original leases, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas told Border Report.

Cuellar, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said he was able to get the money added for the Fiscal 2021 budget with a unanimous committee vote. However, the measure still must pass the full House, Senate, and president before it becomes law, which could likely take several months or until spring if a new president is elected, he said.

The funds are needed, Cuellar said, after the IBWC in May sent letters to 200 ranching families saying the program would be discontinued by July 1. IBWC recanted after Border Report wrote about the planned discontinuation of the program, and the agency sent letters granting ranchers a one-year extension. If approved, these funds will be used to help investigate ranch leases during that period, Cuellar said.

“The IBWC commissioner sent out a one-year extension so this gives us, in the Appropriations Committee, time to put language to renew or extend or amend the leases and put more money toward the program so they can have sufficient staff and get a handle of all the leases they have there,” Cuellar said via phone from Washington, D.C.

Language in the budget bill to add the funds says “these leases facilitate a cost-effective way for the IBWC to maintain property and clear vegetation along the Rio Grande, while benefiting the local agricultural industry.”

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell has about 100 cattle on 1,500 acres of leased land along the Rio Grande in his rural county of just 15,000 residents. He was among several ranchers who reached out to federal leaders for help after receiving the initial cancellation letter.

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Rathmell said it would be near impossible to move so many cattle so quickly, plus the county is a quarantine zone for cattle fever tick disease.

His grandfather was granted the lease, which at the time stated it could not be transferred to subsequent generations. Now, IBWC officials must find a way to renegotiate the leases, which will likely include increasing land lease fees. But Rathmell says paying more money would be worth it if they are allowed to continue to use these border lands.

“We are all relieved and I think we’re all hopeful and feel good about IBWC being able to generate new leases for the next generation tenants which are mainly next-generation family members who have taken over the original leases,” Rathmell said Tuesday via phone.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell calls some of his 100 herd of cattle on June 4, 2020. The cows graze on 1,500 acres of land his ranching family leases on the Rio Grande through a program managed by the International Boundary and Water Commission. The cows are instrumental in helping stop the spread of cattle fever tick because they are treated monthly. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Most of the ranching families had previously owned the lands that they now lease. But in the early 1950s, the land was taken by the federal government when the building of a nearby dam created Falcon Lake and flooded the county. Losing the land twice, they told Border Report, would be unfair.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell surveys land on June 4, 2020, his family ranches in rural Zapata County in deep South Texas. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The program, Rathmell said, also helps ranchers elsewhere in Texas and other states because the cattle that graze these lands help to ward off cattle fever tick disease. Texas ranchers work diligently to treat their cattle for the disease, while ranchers on the Mexican don’t treat to eradicate the ticks. When ticks cross the international river from Mexico, they have a hard time surviving on U.S. soil. The cows on the U.S. side are treated monthly and any infected ticks that they come in contact with drop and die. If the cows are not allowed to craze the riverbanks, Rathmell worries that other animals, like deer, will carry the ticks north to ranchers upstate and elsewhere in the country.

“The cows are the frontline on fever ticks. They’ll climb up on a cow … and those cows are treated and so they die, and that stops the spread,” Rathmell said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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