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  • Enforcing Ecology: Geographies of the Cattle Fever Tick
  • Caroline Tracey (bio)

In June of 2013, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) proposing 70 miles of wire-knot game fencing through portions of Texas’s Maverick, Starr, Webb, and Zapata Counties. The document speaks of invasion, smuggling, surveillance, and vigilance.1

These are familiar words for the border. “These invaders have been crossing into Texas for as long as time remembers,” wrote a local newspaper in 2015.2 Yet neither the government nor the newspaper is describing immigration. The invaders that concern them are Boophilus annulatus and Boophilus microplus, ticks capable of carrying babesiosisknown colloquially as “tick fever” or “Texas fever”3—a disease that can be lethal to cattle. Boophilus ticks have been present in the Americas since 1493; Boophilus habitat historically extended across the American South up to, roughly, the Mason-Dixon line, above which there were too few frost-free days for the ticks’ survival.4 Southern cattle remained immune to babesiosis as long as they were constantly reinfected by ticks carrying babesiosis, meaning that the disease did not pose a problem as long as cattle markets remained regional. After the Civil War, however, as Texas stockmen wanted access to northern ranges and markets, they needed eradication so that their cattle would stop killing northern livestock en masse.5 With the cooperation of the USDA and state agencies, the ticks were eradicated from all of the United States but a Permanent Quarantine Zone (PQZ) through the border counties along the Rio Grande during a five-decade campaign culminating in 1943.6 Since then, concern about ticks had fallen silent. But the EIS renewed concern by pointing to a sudden, sharp increase in infestations beyond the PQZ from 2004 to 2011 that it deemed a “threat to the Nation’s livestock health and food supply” and attributed to an increase in animals crossing the border.7 See figures 1 and 2. [End Page 789]


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Figure 1.

Map showing areas quarantined on account of tick fever in 1906. Dotted lines show the northern boundary of the infected area at the beginning of tick eradication. Source: William Penn Ellenberger, 1940, Cattle-Fever Ticks and Methods of Eradication, U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmer's Bulletin No. 1057, p. 6, Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Agriculture.


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Figure 2.

Tick quarantine line in 2011. Source: Matthew Messenger, “Cattle Fever Tick Eradication Program—Tick Control Barrier: Draft Environmental Impact Statement, June 2013,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, p. 11.

[End Page 790]

The EIS’s dates oddly parallel human migrant traffic through South Texas, which increased sharply beginning in 2004 and peaked in 2012.8 June 2013 also coincided with U.S. congressional passage of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, which approved 350 new miles of border fencing between the U.S. and Mexico.9 Thus, while the tick fence will serve no function against human migrants, it appears that anxieties surrounding illegal immigration and porous national sovereignty are reflected in the management of tick fever.10

Yet as newspapers, government white papers, and even scientific articles promulgate the unified conclusion that the United States is “threatened by unregulated movements of illegal cattle and wildlife,”11 a spike so dramatic in a single year—from 19 infestations in 2003 to 94 in 2004—seems improbable, especially solely as a result of animal movement. Moreover, the extent of animal crossings beyond the PQZ remains a matter of debate.12 The spike appears to have far less to do with increased crossings than with political and ecological circumstances on the United States side, most significantly a 2004 change to Texas Animal Health Commission regulations that permits premises to be designated as “infested” when a tick is found on white-tailed deer or exotic hunting game (particularly nilgai antelope), not only cattle.13 These species were not considered a factor in eradication—deer were nearly extirpated in Texas at the time (their numbers climbed after screwworm eradication in 1964) and nilgai...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-1371
Print ISSN
0894-8410
Pages
pp. 789-817
Launched on MUSE
2021-05-20
Open Access
No
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