McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The federal agency that oversees the Rio Grande is considering ending cattle grazing permits and possibly allowing hunting or other activities on river borderlands in a remote section of South Texas.

The U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) is assessing whether livestock is hurting the environment in the Falcon Dam Reservoir. The agency held three public meetings this week in Laredo, Zapata and Roma, Texas.

“There are a number of problems that have been identified,” Sally Spener, U.S. Secretary to the IBWC on Friday told Border Report.

The solution could mean ending all rancher grazing rights, she said.

“There are seven management alternatives that were developed, and of course, we had the public scoping meetings this week to get peoples’ input about what they’d like to see us analyze, and one of the seven alternatives is to terminate all leases,” Spener said.

This is the second time in two and a half years that the international agency has questioned ranchers’ continued grazing rights near the Falcon International Reservoir and Lake, which straddle the U.S.-Mexico border in this remote area 75 miles southeast of Laredo.

The Falcon Project includes 63,192 acres of federal lands managed by USIBWC, of which 22,271 acres are in active grazing leases, according to the agency.

The agency says it is preparing an Environmental Assessment in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act “to assess the potential environmental consequences associated with land management and grazing leases.”

NEPA requires federal agencies to assess environmental effects of proposed actions prior to making decisions, according to the EPA.

During the public meetings, “our staff was there to meet with residents and to share information about our process that is underway for our environmental assessment,” Spener said.

In June 2020, USIBWC officials sent letters notifying about 200 ranchers in rural Zapata County that their grazing rights were being terminated. The ranchers were told they had to move their cattle within 30 days at the height of the then-new coronavirus pandemic. At that time, the county also was under a deer tick quarantine, which prevented ranchers from moving cattle out of the county. Additionally, many slaughterhouses were closed due to the pandemic.

Ranchers pushed back and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, whose hometown is Laredo, helped them to negotiate with agency officials to extend grazing right leases to ranchers even if the original owners were deceased. They also discussed raising rental rates to fair market value for the land.

Since 1966, rental charges to ranchers have been 20 cents per acre per year, with a minimum of $7.50. Altogether, the agency says it takes in $17,025.68 in rental fees annually.

Spener says the rental fees do not cover administrative costs the federal agency incurs. And “one of the alternatives that is under consideration is to charge fair market value through the NEPA process,” she told Border Report.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell was among the ranchers who received a termination notice in 2020. At the time, Rathmell said it wasn’t fair.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell is seen June 4, 2020, calling his cows on borderland his family leases on the Rio Grande near Falcon Dam in South Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

He told Border Report that ranchers had been unfairly forced off these lands in the early 1950s under the Eisenhower administration in order to build Falcon Lake and the International Falcon Reservoir, commonly called Falcon Dam.

Rathmell’s grandfather, Leopold Martinez, was granted land rights to the property in 1953 after the federal government flooded the land and took it for the lake and dam construction. 

Three thousand residents in what was then the river town of Zapata were relocated miles north of the border to a section off Highway 83. Many families had lived on the border, looking across the shore to Mexico for hundreds of years, he said.

At the time, USIBWC gave families whose lands were taken away, the rights to graze cattle seasonally on the river, depending upon water levels.

And they have done so for over seven decades.

But now the federal agency is studying the 117 active grazing leases and 243 other types of licenses and permits, the agency says.

Cattle are seen grazing on the Mexican side of Falcon Dam on Feb. 24, 2022, from Zapata County, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Some of the concerns include some families not using the land to graze cattle.

“People have leases, but they’re not grazing. And so one of the goals was to help control vegetation in the reservoir, and if people aren’t grazing it then vegetation isn’t being controlled,” Spener said.

Other agency concerns include:

  • Some grazing leases “are not accessible for inspection by USIBWC,” the agency says.
  • Lease charges have not changed since 1966.
  • Some leases have been transferred to third parties “without authorization.”
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. (Cuellar Courtesy Photo)

Cuellar on Friday told Border Report that he has talked with Rathmell and USIBWC Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner about the current environmental assessment and public meetings.

“It is a scoping process to develop land management alternatives. It will look at various alternatives which does include terminating leases but also other things like hunting, prescribed burn, change in rental fees, no action, public right of way access,” Cuellar told Border Report. “This is an opportunity for public input.”

The last hearing was held Thursday night in Roma. However, written comments are still being accepted. The public can email or send by mail to: USIBWC, 4191 N. Mesa Street, El Paso, Texas 79902.

The deadline to send comments is March 3.