Editorial Roundup: Texas

Dallas Morning News. June 18, 2022.

Editorial: Texas must protect its mountain lions and ban footholds

“There’s a mountain lion somewhere right now stuck in a trap.”

A group of landowners and biologists is lobbying the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to manage mountain lion populations in the state. We hope Texans for Mountain Lions succeeds.

There is no closed season on mountain lions in Texas, and no limit on how many can be hunted or trapped. Of 16 U.S. states with breeding mountain lion populations, Texas is the only state without regulated management.

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Even more concerning, the chief way mountain lions are killed in Texas is not by hunters, but by trappers, often with bear traps. Also called footholds, these are inhumane, spring-loaded, metal-toothed claws that snap closed on an animal’s leg. Since there’s no requirement for trappers to check their traps, a mountain lion may spend days in a trap before it dies of thirst or exposure.

A TPWD study in 1999 monitored 16 mountain lions in the Big Bend area. All 16 were killed by humans; 15 in footholds. A more recent study, soon to be published in the scientific journal Wildlife Society Bulletin, records a nearly 50% mortality rate among mountain lions in the Davis Mountains, almost entirely due to trapping.

This week, Texans for Mountain Lions submitted a petition to TPWD, asking for six conservation reforms. While all six are worth pursuing, four are no-brainers:

— Conduct research to identify the population size, status and distribution of mountain lions in Texas.

— Require anyone who kills a mountain lion to report it to TPWD, just the way harvest reports are required for deer or other game animals.

— Require 36-hour trap check times, so that trapped animals can either be euthanized humanely or transported.

— Limit harvests to five or fewer mountain lions annually until TPWD can determine the population size and status and establish sustainable hunting limits.

Those are a good start but we would go further and outlaw footholds altogether. There is simply no good reason to allow them, and plenty of reasons to restrict them.

If opposition arises to this proposal, it will likely come from the livestock industry. To be sure, ranchers have the right to protect their herds, but they can do so with open hunting seasons or live traps just as easily as with footholds. According to a TPWD publication on mountain lions, they prefer wild game to cattle anyway, mostly hunting deer, antelope and hogs, as well as smaller animals.

We asked TPWD about footholds. Officials were hesitant to advocate for any position, but TPWD spokesperson Cory Chandler acknowledged that protecting mountain lions is good conservation.

“Predators are critical to maintaining a sustainable, healthy ecosystem for all wildlife, so our goal is to manage for sustainable and healthy predator populations in Texas while providing flexibility for landowners to manage their depredation and recreational opportunities to the public,” Chandler wrote in a statement.

Filmmaker Ben Masters is part of the group petitioning. He told us he became aware of this problem while filming a documentary.

“We were filming the mountain lion sequence and all of a sudden, the star cat showed up missing all his toes,” he said. “There aren’t naturally occurring deaths of mountain lions in Texas. They all get trapped. There’s a mountain lion somewhere right now stuck in a trap.”

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. June 16, 2022.

Editorial: Botched police response in Uvalde is exactly why we need body cams. Release the footage

One really disturbing crime is sometimes all it takes to enact change at any level. The Uvalde shooting has done that, encouraging new federal gun legislation and school safety provisions.

It has also revealed the limitations police hope to place on public release of body camera footage. The Texas Department of Public Safety has asked Attorney General Ken Paxton to prevent the public release of footage from cameras that law enforcement officers wore during the shooting at Robb Elementary School, citing one of the many legal loopholes available to them.

In this case, DPS officials argue, the footage could be used by other criminals to find “weaknesses” in how police respond to crimes.

No offense to the Uvalde ISD police and others on the scene for more than an hour while the attack was active, but that ship has sailed.

Motherboard, a tech publication, filed public records requests with DPS, Uvalde city police, the school district, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Protection agency. It seeks body camera footage, audio recordings, and other relevant information from that day in order to understand what went wrong.

It does not take the eye of a criminal investigator to see that Uvalde police failed to follow protocol and lacked the tools and courage necessary to confront an active shooter and usher dying children to nearby hospitals so that their lives may have been saved, even as they prevented parents from going inside the school themselves.

Over the two weeks following the shooting, the story law enforcement shared to the media changed several times. From whether there was a security guard at the school to whether a door was propped open and whether the first responding officer carried a radio, law enforcement involved in the response have shown they’re good at one thing: obfuscation.

Body camera footage of active law enforcement officers that day wouldn’t tell the whole story, of course. And it wouldn’t have to include awful footage of dead or dying victims. But it would provide answers that law enforcement can’t quite get straight.

There are legal provisions to prevent release of the footage, but they should be sparsely applied on a case-by-case basis. The loopholes are vast and expansive and completely thwart the reason for body cameras in the first place: to promote transparency and accountability.

Body camera footage often clarifies for law enforcement and perpetrator what might seem hazy in the heat of an intense moment.

According to the Texas Public Information Act, “A video of a use of deadly force by an officer or the investigation of an officer can not be released to the public until all criminal and administrative processes have been completed. A law enforcement agency may release a video if the agency determines that release of the video advances a law enforcement purpose.” Under these two vague circumstances, both left up to the powers that be, it’s a miracle anyone wondering about the fate of their loved ones in the hands of police officers has seen body cam footage.

Texas law has provisions about what footage and other police documents police departments can withhold. Each city has its own policies, too. Together, they form a laundry list of subjective reasons. Here are some in Fort Worth: in cases in which no one is charged or convicted, in cases where footage shows the inside of a residence, when an investigation is ongoing or the release could compromise the investigation, when the footage might violate someone’s privacy, if the subject is a juvenile, if the footage identifies officers’ names or adversely affects future operations, or when there is a “dead suspect.”

These, particularly that last reason, allows police the option to withhold video or documents in far too many cases. Too many departments are quick to release it when it proves an officer’s use of force was justified, but they fight it when it can hold police accountable.

In light of Uvalde — and future, horrific crimes — it’s time for the Legislature to increase police transparency when it comes to body camera footage. Close some of the loopholes that obfuscate tragedies like this one.

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Houston Chronicle. June 18, 2022.

Editorial: Goodbye to a river? The Rio Grande needs our help.

Santa Elena Canyon, arguably the most spectacular natural feature in a Big Bend National Park full of wonders, owes its existence to a river that for eons has been carving a path through sheer limestone walls that soar some 1,500 feet above the river bed. We call the inexorable carver the Rio Grande, the fifth-longest river in North America.

These days at Santa Elena, the Rio Grande is the Rio Pequeño. The iconic stream that serves as an international boundary is but a sandy hop, skip, and jump between Texas and Mexico. The Rio Grande is running dry.

In the national park and elsewhere along its 1,900-mile length from southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico, the river has been reduced in places to shallow pools separated by sand. Fish die in small puddles bounded by gray tiles of dried mud. Bird species have lost critical habitats. Native vegetation along the banks is dying.

Farmers in southern Colorado, central New Mexico and northern Mexico can no longer depend on the river’s reliable sustenance. Crops wither; orchards die. Towns and cities in two nations scramble for water. In the Big Bend, wilderness-adventure outfits are having to substitute hiking and four-wheel-drive treks for float trips. (Clients, and their guides, prefer paddling a canoe to dragging one.) A river that has sustained life in an arid land for millennia is in crisis - perhaps for a long time to come.

“It’s astonishing. It’s sad. It’s no longer a river,” retired Big Bend National Park wildlife biologist Raymond Skiles told Marfa Public Radio recently.

What’s happening to the Rio Grande, a designated “Wild and Scenic River,” is happening throughout the American West and, as Skiles reminded the Chronicle editorial board last week, “it’s been an ongoing process for decades.” It’s getting worse.

Throughout the vast area, the first two decades of the 21st century have been drier than at any time in the past 1,200 years. The Rio Grande, the Colorado, the Gila and other southwestern rivers, already in trouble because of the so-called mega-drought, are in even more trouble because we over-use them.

And then there’s a third problem: More and more people are discovering the American Southwest as a desirable place not only to visit but also to relocate. Urban Texans desperate to get out of Dodge during the pandemic, seemed to rediscover Big Bend and the Rio Grande. The national park experienced a record number of visitors in 2021. (A wilderness outfitter based in Terlingua, the old mining village west of the park, told us that Houstonians make up by far the highest percentage of her clients.)

Newcomers are arriving just in time to recognize, we hope, that reviving the Rio Grande is a devilishly difficult problem. It involves somehow harnessing the cooperation of agricultural interests (which siphon off 75 percent of the water), the tourism industry, municipalities, environmentalists, Indigenous people, energy providers and elected officials at local, state and national levels. The Rio Grande supports a vast ecosystem, providing water for more than 6 million people and 2 million acres of farm land.

To make it even more complicated, the Rio Grande is an international challenge. Mexico is as invested in El Rio Bravo del Norte (Mexico’s name for the river) as we are.

“Treaties are the dominant factor here,” Skiles said. The wildlife biologist grew up in far West Texas and worked for his “favorite park in the world” for 30 years before retiring in 2018. He’s watched the river deteriorate over the years. To him it’s distressingly obvious that the current water allocation system, based on international treaties and usage agreements going back to the 1930s and ’40s, is unsustainable. Things have changed drastically in eight decades.

Old agreements designed primarily to meet agricultural needs at a time when water was relatively plentiful mean that Rio Grande water is owed to someone long before it gets to the national park, much less to the Gulf of Mexico. More water is being used than is being replenished. As the Colorado publication High Country News noted a few years ago, the original allotment agreements almost totally ignored “the ecology, recreational economy and quality of life for the people who live in the Rio Grande Basin.”

Responding to the river crisis at its most basic level means acknowledging the stark reality of climate change. In the past century, the average temperature in some areas of the Southwest has risen more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Rivers and lakes all through the Southwest are threatened, and water shortages and mandatory use restrictions are more and more common, from New Mexico to California. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “the warm temperatures that helped to make this drought so intense and widespread will continue (and increase) until stringent climate mitigation is pursued and regional warming trends are reversed.” For the Rio Grande, the combination of heat and drought means that winter snowfall in the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountains is diminishing. Without snow, there is no Rio Grande.

So, who takes the lead in the massive effort to revive the river? Given the welter of entities and interests, the answer to that question is not immediately obvious.

Most likely, it’s the U.S. Department of the Interior imposing a moratorium on growth and development along the river. Dam-building, channeling, irrigation, crop choices and construction need to be reassessed before serious restoration can begin, a process that could take decades. Quoting High Country News again, “A moratorium on further development would allow the Interior Department to undertake a comprehensive analysis to determine the flows and environmental restoration required to support a healthy river from its headwaters in Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Moratorium by definition means temporary, but even a temporary halt to development would be drastic. Any such move must be carefully tailored. But the death of a river is no less drastic. On the other hand, a revived and healthy Rio Grande, with water flowing the way it’s supposed to through Santa Elena Canyon, would benefit millions of people, the economies of two nations and a vast, irreplaceable ecosystem.

Biologist Skiles suggests that restoration also might be an object lesson for those of us who only observe from afar, including Houstonians. “What we’re seeing out here is moving from west to east,” he warns. “Reductions are coming. If we can learn to adapt and manage, perhaps the rest of the country can learn from us.”

The Rio Grande is as much a part of our Texas heritage as the Alamo, the Panhandle or the Hill Country, a central part of what makes Texas, well, Texas. It needs our help.

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San Antonio Express-News. June 18, 2022.

Editorial: Celebrating Juneteenth, yet moral arc still bending

In 1963, the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin published his searing classic “The Fire Next Time.” In the first of the two essays in the book, a letter to his nephew, Baldwin writes, “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.”

Today, Juneteenth, is the day we commemorate Texas’ enslaved celebrating their emancipation two years, five months, and 18 days too late. That’s how long it took for word to reach them on June 19, 1865, in Galveston Bay by way of Gen. Gordon Granger.

But long before Juneteenth would be recognized as a federal holiday, word of their new freedom was like every holiday rolled into one.

It was New Year’s Eve because of the celebration it ignited.

It was New Year’s Day because it signaled a new beginning.

It was Mother’s Day and Father’s Day because newly freed parents began looking for their children who’d been taken from them and sold, and children began searching for the parents from whom they’d been stolen.

It was the Fourth of July because Frederick Douglass was right when he said the original Fourth of July meant nothing to America’s enslaved because they weren’t declared free. For Texas’ enslaved, the Emancipation Proclamation was their Declaration of Independence, and Juneteenth was the first day they began to see new meaning and the possibility of inclusion in the Fourth of July.

It was Thanksgiving because the God of their weary years, the God of their silent tears, had finally delivered them along this stony road to freedom.

And it delivered the United States a little further up the stony road of democracy because the first Juneteenth was in the era of Reconstruction and this nation’s first attempt at a multiracial democracy. However, this fledgling endeavor was short-lived and violently ended by the white supremacy of Black Codes, Jim Crow, the convict-lease system, and all the legal and extralegal ways in which slavery’s brutality and oppression could be duplicated and inflicted on future generations of Black Americans.

The United States would not become a true democracy until 100 years after the first Juneteenth, 102 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, with passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet this crowning achievement of the civil rights movement has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court as state legislatures across the nation have made it more difficult to vote.

There are politicians who will, today, offer platitudes about honoring Juneteenth even as they betray the spirit of Juneteenth.

When Granger sailed away from Galveston Bay, he left behind no back wages for the labor of the formerly enslaved Texans who helped create the state’s wealth. Nor were they compensated for the barbarity they endured for generations.

Like emancipated people across the country, they were merely left with dreams of full citizenship and opportunity often denied and delayed.

The heart of Juneteenth beats to the rhythm of family and freedom. Black family reunions are held this weekend because the first thing Black people did when freed was try to find their people.

This weekend, Black families will reunite in San Antonio and small towns such as Nixon, Schulenburg, Luling, Gonzales, Seguin and Victoria, just as they will gather throughout the nation where, over generations, Texans have carried the traditions of Juneteenth with them.

It is a time to celebrate a freedom once won but also to contemplate a democracy still not fully secured.

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