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Former manager of the South Texas refuges complex Ken Merritt. photo by Ben Briones Against the Wall By MELISSA del BOSQUE Not even federal law can keep Bush’s fence from ripping through natural areas along the Rio Grande. Ilk en Merritt dedicated 31 years of his professional life to protecting endangered wildlife for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. He’d still be doing the job he loved if not for a fateful decision. In December 2007, his bosses presented Merritt with a choice: Adhere to long standing federal law, or sign off on a plan by the Department of Homeland Security to build an 18-foot steel wall through a wildlife refuge under his charge. Merritt oversaw 180,000 acres of federally protected land that comprises three national wildlife refuges: the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the Santa Ana, and the Laguna Atascosa. In an area where 95 percent of the native habitat has fallen prey to development, the value of the refuges cannot be overstated. Over three decades, the federal government invested more than 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 27, 2008 $80 million in buying and restoring habitat along the TexasMexico border, creating 115 refuges along the Rio Grande. Merritt’s three-refuge complex is the largest tract. Volunteers and federal employees painstakingly restored native grasses and trees to fallow farmland, and endangered species such as ocelots and jaguarundis slowly returned. The refuges are home to 700 species of birds and animals, as well as 300 species of butterflies, including the rare Telea hairstreak butterfly, which caused a stir last year in scientific circles when it was spotted for the first time in 70 years. The wildlife refuges have been an economic boon for one of the poorest regions in the country. The median annual household income along the border is $15,000. The more than 200,000 birders and ecotourists who visit the region generate an estimated $150 million a year. Merritt assumed his job was secure. “I really didn’t think