ZAPATA, Texas (Border Report) — At 82 years old, longtime rancher Renato Ramirez knows the South Texas borderlands. And on a recent day as he looked across the Rio Grande to Mexico he fretted.

A group of cattle was grazing on the banks, a stone’s throw from him, and he worried they would cross into the United States.

The river is very low right now due to drought conditions. If the cows come across, they could bring ticks that could infect his herd, and that of other South Texas ranchers, with cattle fever, a severe and often fatal disease transmitted by cattle fever ticks.

“The cattle cross and so they bring in the fever tick,” Ramirez said.

South Texas rancher Renato Ramirez checks on his herd Feb. 24, 2022, in Zapata, Texas, on the border with Mexico. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Worse, he says, are deer that now are continually crossing the international river and Lake Falcon, which also borders Mexico, infected with the fever ticks that could spread to his herds.

“The fever tick comes on the deer because the deer cross back and forth,” said Ramirez, dressed in well-worn cowboy boots, jeans and a jean jacket.

“The fever tick carries that fever that kills the cows and once you got it you got to eradicate the whole herd,” he said as he showed Border Report one of his four ranches in this rural part of South Texas.

South Texas rancher Renato Ramirez carries a rope as he keeps a safe distance from his cattle on Feb. 24, 2022, on one of his four ranches in Zapata, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Water levels at Falcon Reservoir on Friday were just 23% of capacity, or 259 feet, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

The water should be 40 feet higher, Ramirez said.

And that means the boundary between Mexico and Texas is closer and it is easier for wildlife to cross.

He says it also entices human smugglers to bring across migrants as there is no border wall in this area where locals fought border wall construction during the Trump administration.

A tick quarantined zone

This area is part of a tick quarantine zone regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

(USDA Graphic)

The permanent quarantine zone extends to all cattle ranches on the border from Del Rio to Brownsville, Texas, on the Gulf Coast.

But Zapata County, where international water levels are especially low right now due to a drought at Lake Falcon, has had some of the worst trouble with wildlife crossing and that is putting many herds at risk, Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell told Border Report recently.

“It’s been an ongoing effort with the fever ticks. Zapata County is kind of the epicenter of that problem and ranchers especially along the border and the lake have to deal with that infestation,” said Rathmell, who also is a rancher.

“There has been an increase in numbers of deer. The lake levels have been so low for so long that we have had increased brush in those areas that would normally be covered with water so there is an increase in population that crosses,” Rathmell said.

A herd of cows in Mexico can be seen grazing south of the Rio Grande at Falcon Reservoir in Zapata, Texas, on Feb. 24. Protruding sticks show how low the water level is. Cows infected with cattle fever ticks can easily walk across and infect U.S. herds. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Federal law requires border cattle to be dipped

Border ranchers must undergo extraordinary measures to protect their herds from the ticks, as well as herds further North and in other states.

Federal regulations require that ranchers in quarantine zones dip their cattle in special government-provided insecticide vats every 90 days to ward off the fever ticks.

But it takes a lot of manpower and extra money for ranchers to round up their herds so often, ranchers say.

The government provides special dipping stations with plenty of ivermectant chemicals to kill the ticks.

There the cattle are “scratched” by inspectors looking for signs of the tick, and then they are put into a shoot that is filled with water and insecticide and the cattle are forced down the shoot and to swim in the frothy concoction until they come out on the other side.

Ramirez, who also is a banker and self-described as careful with his money, says it costs him $1,500 to move about 70 cattle at a time in trailers.

“And that’s an expense,” he said, standing by the loud dipping vat on a chilly winter’s day recently.

This is a government-supplied free dipping station where South Texas ranchers in Zapata, Texas, bring cattle to have herd put in insecticide to kill cattle fever ticks. The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires borderland ranchers dip cattle every 90 days. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Rathmell says “it also stresses the cattle.”

To further ensure that the cattle are tick-free, the government also provides black ivermectin-laced molasses tubs for the cattle to lick, which Ramirez has spread out throughout his 5,000 acres of ranchlands.

But Ramirez says infected cattle aren’t the only problems he’s had to deal with living on the border.

Migrants crossing illegally onto one of his ranches were so bad that he called law enforcement that put up cameras “and they caught the source” — meaning a coyote who was human trafficking.

He says he hasn’t had trouble on that ranch since, but another ranch “is a pickup point” for human smugglers.

“That’s a pick-up point where they walk to that ranch and they stay on the side of the highway and that’s where they’re picked up and in the process, they do a lot of damage to my house,” he said.

He’s been a lifelong Republican and says he believes in border security.

He says the migrants must be stopped from crossing the Rio Grande illegally, and he says some of them, he believes also bring the deer tick to his ranchlands and other ranches in South Texas.

“Don’t overlook the marijuana and don’t overlook the illegal immigrants who are walking across the fields and picking up ticks on their pants and stuff like that. Once they get on this side, they’re one source of spreading the fever tick,” Ramirez said.

He has 10 watchdogs but says he still worries about migrants stumbling onto his properties and coming across his 81-year-old wife when he isn’t there.

Molasses tubs laced with ivermectin, an insecticide, are seen Feb. 24, 2022, on ranchlands in Zapata County, Texas, to prevent cattle fever ticks from infecting cattle. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Cattle in South Texas eat prickly pear in the winter when hay is unavailable. A deer feeder, right, placed by the government gives pellets laced with insecticide to deer and is cordoned off with a wire fence to prevent hogs from eating the pellets. Feeding stations are placed throughout ranches in Zapata, Texas, to prevent the spread of deer fever tick. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)

He grew up here and takes pride in pointing out the mesquite and los ébanos (ebony) trees, as well as fragrant huisache bushes with yellow flowers and needle points.

He was 12 when his family moved to nearby Laredo when Falcon Reservoir was created during the Eisenhower administration in the early 1950s and the original town of Zapata was flooded and relocated three miles north.

He got a master’s degree and doctorate and taught at a university before he said he returned to start the International Bank of Commerce as its founder and to return to his roots “and make some real money,” he said.

Now he is chairman of the board and has a corner office at the Zapata branch, one of eight bank branches throughout the state.

“I think we ought to shut the border down. We cannot have a wide-open border and people coming in without medical records and without criminal records,” he said.

“We ought to shut the border down. We cannot have a wide-open border and people coming in.”

Rancher Renato Ramirez
Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell, seen Feb. 24, 2022, also is a South Texas rancher. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Judge Rathmell said most in this county of 15,000 residents support border security but did not want a border wall put up and believed that the volume of water in Lake Falcon would be enough of a deterrent.

“We fought with the Trump administration,” he said.

But now he concedes that low water levels are allowing too many souls — humans and wildlife — to cross from Mexico here.

“Falcon Reservoir encompasses 20 to 30 miles of our county and when elevation is full will have 2-3 miles of water so it is a sizeable barrier and that can serve as a barrier for illegal immigration and illegal smuggling,” he said.