South Texas ranchers get another year to graze cattle along Rio Grande

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McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — About 200 South Texas ranchers will be allowed to graze their cattle on federal lands along the Rio Grande for at least another year, federal officials announced Friday.

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

The International Boundary and Water Commission began mailing letters telling ranchers in Zapata County, Texas, their herds may stay put. These letters rescind the ones sent last month ordering their herds off the property by the end of June despite agreements ranching families made with the federal agency 70 years ago when it confiscated the property to build the Falcon Dam and Falcon Lake for flood control.

Border Report was first to bring this story and interview Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell, who last week said it would be nearly impossible for his family to move 100 head of cattle from 1,500 acres of grazing land during the coronavirus pandemic, when slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants are closed, and also because the county is under a cattle fever tick quarantine.

Several advocates for the ranchers also feared that the land was being confiscated for use by the federal government to build a border wall.

Rathmell reached out for help to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, as well as U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both Republicans from Texas. Cuellar had multiple conversations with IBWC Commissioner Jayne Harkins, who is in charge of the U.S. section of the agency, which ensures that water treaties between Mexico and the United States are correctly applied and adhered to.

Cuellar told Border Report that he is pleased that this situation is resolved, at least for the time being.

“This is a big win for our ranchers in Zapata County. Today, we made sure their voices were heard. I want to thank IBWC Commissioner Jayne Harkins and her staff for working with my office to extend the Zapata County ranchers grazing leases for one year. During this one year extension, I will continue to work with the IBWC to make sure they are able to obtain public input on possible changes to the grazing lease program,” Cuellar said.

The new IBWC letters sent out Friday to ranchers read: “This letter provides formal notice regarding an extension to a recent letter you received on lease terminations; the USIBWC is hereby extending termination of Falcon Lease’s terminating June 30, 2020 by one (1) year starting June 30, 2020 and expiring June 30, 2021.”

On a 100-degree day on June 4, 2020, Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell watches as his herd take shade in mesquite trees alongside the Rio Grande in rural Zapata County, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Rathmell, whose county has just 14,000 residents in a hardscrabble part of South Texas, said ranchers had felt unfairly targeted by the initial notices to vacate the property that was first taken from their families in the 1950s, and now seemed again to be stripped from them.

Had IBWC not changed its mind, Rathmell last week told Border Report on a tour of his family’s grazing lands: “I might have to liquidate the herds or sell a majority of the herds in a time when the cattle markets are not ideal due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Plus, Zapata County currently is under a cattle fever tick quarantine zone and every cow would have to be specially treated and inspected before being legally allowed to be moved. If not, the bovines could spread the deadly disease to other herds elsewhere in the state.

IBWC officials told Border Report that when the grazing rights were issued in the early 1950s they were not transferable, but in the ensuing 70 years, several generations of ranching families have continued to utilize these lush, green fields alongside the Rio Grande. IBWC officials during this next year will investigate all of the leases and make sure the land is only used for cattle grazing and will determine what the best course of action will be after July 1, 2021. That could include plans for a border wall or increased grazing fees for these ranchers.

But for now, Zapata County ranchers are allowed to continue grazing their herds at the current rate of $1 per acre per year.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at

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