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U.S. wildlife refuges face threats from people, development

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) _ A sweeping wildlife preserve in southwestern Arizona is among the nation's 10 most endangered refuges, due in large part to illegal drug and immigrant traffic and Border Patrol operations, a conservation group said Friday.

The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, home to the endangered Sonoran pronghorn, has been damaged by excessive human presence, according to a report by Defenders of Wildlife. The report calls for construction of a vehicle barrier on the southern edge of the refuge along the Mexican border.

``We're trying to highlight the fact how special this place is, but it's also at a crossroads,'' said Noah Matson, a Defenders of Wildlife director in Washington who wrote ``Refuges at Risk: America's Ten Most Endangered National Wildlife Refuges 2004.''

Arizona has become the nation's busiest entry point for illegal immigrants from Mexico. High-speed off-road chases, abandoned vehicles and damage to fragile desert landscapes have resulted. In 2001, Cabeza became the site of Arizona's deadliest border crossing, when 14 people died after temperatures soared to 115 degrees.

``In an attempt to curb illegal border crossings and prevent further deaths, border officials have established permanent camps in the refuge, incongruous with this once-pristine and remote place, but reflecting the intensity of the problem,'' the report said.

A call to the Border Patrol office in Tucson was not immediately returned Friday.

The 10 wildlife preserves cited Friday face some common threats, including nearby development, pollution and invasive species, according to the report. Escalating industrial and corporate development close to and even inside refuges is the most pervasive threat, now that about three dozen refuges have more than 1,800 active oil and gas wells, the report said.

Besides Cabeza, the preserves on the list: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska; Delta National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana; Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Nevada; Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, California; Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges, Oregon and California; Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota; Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Texas; Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina; and Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa.

The United States has 540 wildlife refuges encompassing nearly 100 million acres. Half of the endangered refuges in Friday's report are in the West.

Roger Di Rosa, Cabeza Prieta's manager, said the report is right about the threat to the refuge. Officials estimate the population of Sonoran pronghorns at 30 to 40 animals at most.

``The border issue is convoluted, and very complex,'' he said. ``The solution to the border problems is not on the border; it's in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City. So we're just putting a Band-Aid on the wound to stanch the blood. It's a difficult situation.''
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