As if fighting terrorism weren’t complicated enough, the United States has a new national security threat to worry about: grizzly bears.
Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee say that environmental laws protecting grizzlies and other wild animals along rural portions of the U.S.-Canada border have handcuffed U.S. Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security agents, potentially making it easier for would-be terrorists to slip into the country.
Trucks and off-road vehicles are prohibited along much of the border in order to protect bears moving between the two countries. But such laws make it difficult for agents to patrol these areas, the lawmakers say.
Border agents can request access permission from the Interior Department and other federal land agencies that control much of the border. But agents often must act quickly to deal with security threats, making the permission process unfeasible, the Republicans say.
“Unfortunately, restrictive policies created and enforced by the Interior Department and federal land managers are preventing the U.S. Border Patrol from providing the maximum amount of security on some of our most vulnerable border areas,” said Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, the top Republican on the House’s national parks, forests and public lands subcommittee.
“Until these policies are reversed, the safety and security of this country remain in jeopardy.”
Mr. Bishop has sponsored legislation to exempt border agents from certain environmental restrictions and “to ensure that [federal] agencies do not impede or restrict Border Patrol from effectively doing their job to secure both the southern and northern border on public lands.”
The bill also pertains to the U.S. border with Mexico, where private landowners complain that people crossing illegally into the U.S. have caused environmental damage by leaving trash and trampling on wildlife habitats.
But with national concerns over illegal border crossings focused mostly on the southern border, House Republicans say, more attention is needed for the U.S.-Canada border, the world’s longest between two countries.
“The national security threat from the North is real,” said a statement released by the Republicans last month.
More than 1,000 miles of the northern U.S. border sits on rural federal land, which in most places is delineated by nothing more than a ditch or a clear-cut through a forest. The border touches 13 states (excluding Alaska), 12 national parks and four American Indian reservations.
People entering the U.S. illegally along the northern border present distinctively different and in some cases more technologically advanced threats, the Republicans say.
Most illegal border crossings on the U.S.-Mexico border are on foot, truck or all-terrain vehicle. But along the western U.S.-Canada border, where public lands generally are remote and isolated, helicopters and planes are routinely used for illegal entry and exit, creating “ideal taking off and landing areas for criminals.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, in an October letter to Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the House Natural Resources Committee’s top Republican, said that Border Patrol “is most willing to work in a creative and careful manner” along the Canada-Washington state border. But she added that the area “must occasionally have some motorized presence in those areas.”
The National Border Patrol Council, a professional union representing more than 17,000 agents, supports the bill.
The measure has about 50 co-sponsors - all Republicans. Although it’s unlikely the Democrat-controlled House will take up the bill, a spokesman for the committee’s Republicans said the group is courting Democratic co-sponsors.
Several environmental groups contacted for this article said they were unaware of the bill and therefore declined to comment.
But the legislation hasn’t escaped the attention of the Canadian media. The Calgary Herald, in a May 30 editorial, said the proposed legislation was based on “unnecessary fears.”
“There is absolutely no excuse for American politicians to be speaking of Canada in tones that even mildly evoke the way they speak of Osama bin Laden and his cohorts,” the editorial says. “America the beautiful has sadly morphed into America the paranoid.”