EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, has spoken with U.S. Section International Boundary and Water Commissioner Jayne Harkins, not other IBWC staffers, on this subject.

ZAPATA, Texas (Border Report) — Nearly 200 ranchers in rural Zapata County on the South Texas border with Mexico have been told by the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission that their families’ decades-old land grazing rights along the Rio Grande are being terminated, and they must move their cattle by month’s end during this coronavirus pandemic when many slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants are closed.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell was among 117 ranchers who received letters late last month from IBWC telling his family they must relocate 100-head of cattle from about 1,000 acres of grass-rich riverfront land that his family has used for 100 years.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell stands June 4, 2020, on South Texas lands owned by IBWC where his family has had grazing rights for cattle since the early 1950s. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

This is the second time that Rathmell and many of these ranchers have been told they will be forced off these lands that the federal government first condemned in the early 1950s under the Eisenhower administration in order to build Falcon Lake and the International Falcon Reservoir. Commonly called Falcon Dam, it was built to control flooding downstream in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

Standing alongside a muddy thigh-high green field lush from recent rains, Rathmell, 59, on Thursday afternoon called and cooed to a few dozen of his mixed-breed cattle that were taking shade under mesquite trees amid the prickly pear cactus. A few mooed back to him, and some approached his familiar green truck looking for food and treats. 

His grandfather, Leopold Martinez, was granted land rights to this property in 1953 after the federal government flooded the land and took it for the lake and dam construction. The entire town of Zapata was taken in fact, forcing a complete relocation further inland of over 3,000 people from the shores of the Rio Grande, where the town had been located for hundreds of years. Lawsuits over families’ losses from mineral rights continued into the 1960s when courts ordered they receive compensation.

But at the time, the U.S. Section of IBWC gave families whose lands were taken the rights to graze cattle seasonally and depending upon lake levels.

Photos taken Thursday at Rathmell’s Zapata County graze lands located about 5 miles north of the town of Zapata, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The region has been in a drought for the past two years and currently the lake is “about 40 feet below,” Rathmell said. That means there are plenty of fields and grass for his cattle to roam.

“President Eisenhower’s administration, at the time, allowed grazing leases to those family ranchers as the lake levels fluctuated,” Rathmell said. “Falcon Lake is almost never at a constant level so when the land is once again not covered by water ranchers put their fences back up and run cattle and it happens year after year.”

Ranching families have done this for the past 70 years, Rathmell said, and so that is why it was so shocking when they were suddenly sent letters telling them they no longer have grazing rights. Worse, they were told they must move their herds by June 30, which Rathmell said is not possible because of a deer tick infestation that requires qu.arantine of all animals from this county.

“The IBWC is lawfully terminating this lease,” the letter to Rathmell’s family read.

The letter was addressed to his grandfather, however, who died about 40 years ago. And that apparently is part of the issue because when the land rights were issued ranchers were told they were not transferable. But as the elder ranchers died off, one by one, Rathmell said the IBWC allowed subsequent generations to continue the grazing rights, as long as they paid their annual fees.

The IBWC letter cites the reason for terminating the lease is because the grazing rights may not be transferable. According to the leases, they may be terminated by IBWC with 30 days notice and for no reason given.

But Rathmell questions why this international agency that oversees the Rio Grande — where hundreds of miles of border wall are currently being built — decided to issue the letters right now?

Rathmell reached out to U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both Texas Republicans, and to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents this county of just 14,000 residents.

On Wednesday afternoon, Cuellar convened a tele-conference call with IBWC officials, Rathmell and several ranchers. At least 20 ranchers piled into the county commission meeting room to listen to the call.

During the meeting, IBWC officials said they recently issued 117 letters and were reviewing about 50 additional lease cases. They said from 2007-2017 they had terminated 50 to 70 leases.

Cuellar asked agency officials whether the federal agency was trying to appropriate these lands to build a border wall and was told that is not the case.

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

“They said ‘no’ this has nothing to do with the fence,” Cuellar told Border Report on Thursday afternoon. “I did ask that question because I’ve had some people say, ‘Hey, do you think their motive is noble in nature?’ That if the land is controlled by the federal government it’s easier to build a fence on it and so people were thinking maybe they’re trying to be kicked out to build the wall fast.”

Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Border Security Subcommittee, said they discussed ways to allow ranchers to be allowed to continue their grazing rights even if the original owner is now deceased, as well as fair market value for the land.

Currently, ranchers pay only about $1 per acre per year, but the current market value for private riverfront land is anywhere from $3 to $5 per acre, Rathmell said.

“When Falcon Dam was built it flooded a lot of property and some of us feel those people were not treated with justice back several years ago and now you add another layer with this situation and it creates a particular problem,” Cuellar said

Cuellar said he has a verbal agreement with IBWC Commissioner Jayne Harkins who said they are working on solutions not to evict ranchers right away.

On Friday afternoon, IBWC officials told Border Report a letter should be released next week laying out new extension terms for ranchers who are using the land as it was intended.

“We’re hoping to get a letter from them soon. I will be talking to the commissioner in the near future. We talked about trying to see if we can find a solution,” Cuellar said.

Zapata County, Texas, is about 60 miles east of Laredo and 110 miles from McAllen, Texas. It has a population of 14,000. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Rathmell on Thursday said he was encouraged and hoped something could be worked out. He said Cuellar and IBWC officials discussed allowing ranchers to remain on lands past June 30.

“Don’t kick us out,” Rathmell said looking over the lush sandy, rocky and hilly fields as his cattle took shade and chewed on fresh shoots of grass, the result of recent heavy rains.

Moving his herd would be next to impossible for several reasons, he added.

During this pandemic, many meat-packing industries and slaughterhouses are currently closed and ranchers have no market for their product. Plus, this area is a quarantine zone for deer tick. Every 30 days, his cattle are rounded up and treated for the ticks, which can cause Texas cattle fever and devastate herds or cause Lyme disease in humans. They can’t legally move the cattle without verifying they are free of the disease and he says that would take over a month to conduct tests on all of his cattle.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell says moving his 100 head of cattle from IBWC grazing lands would be “next to impossible” during this COVID-19 pandemic and because the area is in a deer tick quarantine zone. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“This area is lush and full of ticks, which thrive here,” Rathmell said Thursday as he gave Border Report a tour of what was once his family’s property and where they have continued to graze cattle with IBWC permission since 1953. “But if you remove the cattle, then the ticks, which are heat-seeking, will likely transfer to white-tail deer, and could move north to infect cattle herds elsewhere in the state and country.

Melissa Cigarroa, executive director of the board of trustees for the Rio Grande International Studies Center, a nonprofit that studies the river and has formed a coalition with landowners to protest border wall construction, said the timing of all this is too suspicious, especially as the Trump administration has pledged to wall off 69 riverfront miles in Webb and Zapata Counties. And to order ranchers to move cows during this COVID-19 pandemic, she said, “is ridiculous.”

“It was boilerplate contracts, which meant when that rancher passed it could not transfer to the next generation but that part never happened and so for decades the families that are on the land,” Cigarroa said. “This is BS. Families working the land would just pay the old invoices.”

A spokeswoman For the IBWC told Border Report late Thursday that ranchers will not be forced out June 30.

“We will not require them to vacate by June 30 with a later date to be determined if necessary,” said IBWC spokeswoman Lori Kuczmanski. “We are trying to work with everybody.”

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