There are some words in an obscure country song that the tick riders along the Rio Grande River between Texas and Mexico can appreciate. “It's a long, thin line. Sure is a hot and dusty day,” the singer intones.

The tick riders can relate. This cadre of 61 cowboys patrols more than 500 miles of mesquite and prickly pear inside a permanent quarantine zone designed to keep the cattle fever tick at bay. They're the long, thin line, the vanguard of defense in a little-known but intense effort to protect the health of America's cattle.

And the hot and dusty days? Those, any South Texas cowboy can tell you, just come with the job.

The tick riders who patrol the Rio Grande, catching stray cattle and horses as they cross from Mexico and inspecting U.S. cattle that live inside the permanent quarantine zone, are part of USDA's cattle fever tick eradication program, headquartered in Laredo, TX. Working in conjunction with the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC), the program's goal is to keep the cattle fever tick contained within the permanent quarantine zone along the Rio Grande, with the ultimate goal of pushing cattle fever ticks back across the river into Mexico.

A history lesson

Cattle fever ticks first caught the attention of U.S. cattlemen back in the cattle drive years. South Texas cattle, immune to tick fever but carrying the ticks and the babesia (see p. 66), the blood parasite that causes the disease, came north and infected Kansas cattle, causing as much as a 90% death loss.

This caused an understandably negative reaction by northern ranchers, who imposed a quarantine on cattle from the South — a quarantine sometimes enforced with the help of Oliver Winchester and Sam Colt.

Realizing the quarantine jeopardized the state's cattle industry, the Texas Legislature in 1893 created the Livestock Sanitary Commission (forerunner of TAHC) and gave it a mission: wipe out the fever tick.

At the time, cattle fever ticks were endemic in the South, Southeast and in Southern California. By 1943, combined state and federal efforts pushed them back to the Mexican border in Texas. Since then, USDA's efforts have concentrated on keeping the tick contained within the permanent quarantine zone.

The ticks, however, don't seem to want to cooperate. Aided by favorable conditions and abetted by stray livestock and wildlife that cross the Rio Grande from Mexico, cattle fever ticks are pushing back, breaking through the permanent quarantine zone and setting up house in places they're not welcome.

And that has Bob Hillman worried.

Hillman, TAHC executive director and Texas state veterinarian, is concerned the eradication effort, both within the permanent zone and outside it when tick incursions are found, may not have a sufficient war chest to handle outbreaks.

This past summer is a good example. Three temporary quarantine zones totaling roughly 712,000 acres were established near the permanent quarantine zone after “ticky” cattle were found outside the zone's borders. In total, state and federal officials in October were working 67 infested premises — 42 of them in the permanent quarantine zone and 25 outside it.

That's a smaller count than 2005, says Ed Bowers, director of field operations for USDA's cattle fever tick eradication program. “We had the worse year in 2005, especially in the quarantine zone,” he says. Looking back at roughly the same time in 2005, they were working 108 infestations, with 70 in the quarantine zone and 38 beyond its border.

Needed resources

The concern is money — securing sufficient funding to hire enough tick inspectors and buy the materials needed to keep the tiny time bombs contained. With the temporary quarantine zones established this summer, the total area that state and federal inspectors must patrol more than doubled. That stretches the “long, thin line” even thinner.

According to Hillman, at least 30 additional people are needed to do an effective job. Bowers says 23 temporary inspectors have been hired to help out in the temporary quarantine areas.

Add those to the 61 full-time tick riders and the state inspectors, and that's about 100 people to stop the northward movement of ticks out of an area roughly twice the size of the state of Rhode Island.

And stopping the fever ticks is a hands-on, one-head-at-a-time proposition. “What we have to do is treat and eliminate ticks. In the process, we'll scratch and treat every head of cattle and horses in those zones,” Hillman says. “Then, when we think we've got them done, we'll go back through and do one more scratching of all those cattle herds to make sure we didn't leave something.”

Scratching “means putting your hands on the animal, moving your hands across the folds of the skin, behind the legs and along the neck. You actually scratch (the animal), kind of rake for ticks.”

This on cattle that, as a general rule, don't see the “laying on of hands” as a positive thing at all. It's hard, slow, sometimes dangerous work.

Why worry?

But it's essential work, if the fever tick is to be contained. The ticks can carry the babesia protozoa that cause tick fever.

Cattle that cross legally from Mexico must be treated to eliminate ticks and, in Hillman's opinion, aren't a problem as far as introducing ticks into the U.S. However, stray or smuggled livestock from Mexico, and the native and exotic wildlife that cross back and forth, can carry fever ticks.

If these animals cross the river carrying “hot” fever ticks that complete their life cycle on the U.S. side, the potential exists to introduce a highly virulent disease into a cattle population unprepared to handle it.

Remember those old Kansas cattle? It could happen again.

Cattle and horses coming from ranches inside the temporary and permanent quarantine zones have to be inspected every time they move. That's not true in the “free” area outside the quarantine. Should ticks escape the quarantine zones, they could spread quickly.

“In 2004 and 2005, we found ticks outside the quarantine line, but they had shipped cattle (from the infested premise) for several months (prior to finding the ticks),” Bowers remembers. “We had one cow that went to a pasture with about 140 other cattle. They sold two weeks before we got there and went 60 different directions.”

That's 60 different potential exposures somewhere else. Tracing all those cattle, especially in today's environment of animal ID, takes a lot of time and a lot of people.

“This thing can skyrocket tremendously on you. We can deal with the cattle on the ground, but when you go to tracing cattle that have been sold, they can really get away from you,” Bowers says.

In addition to the potential for the tick to spread rapidly should it escape the quarantine zones, Hillman and Bowers worry about acaracide-resistant ticks. “Mexico is experiencing a problem with ticks resistant to the acaracides used to kill them,” Hillman says. “That contributes to the problem. Add to that the excellent breeding habitat for the ticks the past couple of years, which means we're having a bumper crop of ticks every year.”

Bottom line, Hillman says, “If we let the ticks get away from us today, we really don't have good treatment options,” especially given the environmental regulations of today that didn't exist in 1943, when the U.S. eliminated fever ticks from its historic range.

So the decision the cattle industry and the government must make is whether to continue fighting the battle along the Texas border with Mexico, or fight it along a larger front should the tick and tick fever retake its historic range. To date, that battle has been fought with an under-funded war chest.

“That's really the telling factor as to why we do it here instead of letting it get away from us, and perhaps having a tick we can't control anymore with the constraints that are going to be placed on us,” Hillman says.

Spurs jingle in the pre-dawn light as the tick riders put on their chaps and saddle up for another day as America's quiet warriors in the fever tick battle. And once again, they stretch the long, thin line as the Rio Grande flows to the sea.