WASHINGTON (December 10, 2018) – The Washington Post reported today that the Trump administration’s proposed new border wall in southeastern Texas would slice through Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, despite the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) grave concerns that it will irreparably harm the species, ecosystems and local economies that depend on these public lands. Government documents obtained by Defenders of Wildlife through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed the agency’s fears that the proposed wall will block wildlife migration routes, trap and drown animals during floods, increase mortality for endangered species and irreparably damage the refuge wildlife corridor. To date, the administration has also quashed the Service from publicly disclosing the impacts of wall construction on wildlife and habitat.
Congress is currently considering authorizing more border wall funding in appropriations legislation to fund the federal government through FY 2019. Proposals to build additional wall in the Lower Rio Grande Valley could fragment and destroy more refuge habitat, severing important north-south wildlife corridors like the Ocelot Coastal Corridor and further threatening survival of highly imperiled species.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, issued this statement:
“The Trump administration’s pursuit of a destructive, needless border wall is ludicrous, but unsurprising. This administration has already demonstrated that it will cast aside the law, reject scientific evidence, risk local economies and threaten community security to build this boondoggle. Bulldozing a national wildlife refuge, extirpating endangered ocelots and causing widespread death to wildlife is par for the course for this administration. But we won’t stand for it, and neither should Congress.
“Congress should not provide one more penny for construction of this divisive and damaging wall. We call on House and Senate leaders to stand up against this President to defend our nation’s border communities, public lands and wildlife."
I. Proposed new border wall would slice through Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (LRGV Refuge), destroying, fragmenting and/or effectively severing more than 2,750 refuge acres from the United States.
The public records received in response to a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has targeted LRGV Refuge for wall construction since summer 2017, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mapped refuge parcels in Hidalgo County, calculating the acreage that would be destroyed by new barriers and vegetation clearing to create a 150-foot enforcement zone along the wall (Document 2; Document 2 Attachment). Some refuge tracts may contain wetlands that require filling (Document 3). Other refuge parcels may contain imperiled species and/or their designated critical habitat, like endangered wildflowers in Starr County refuge tracts (Document 4). According to the Service, “some refuge tracts will no longer exist,” as they would be annihilated by the wall (Document 5).
Familiarly known as the “Wildlife Corridor,” LRGV Refuge was created in 1979 to conserve an east-west corridor along 275 river miles from the Gulf of Mexico inland to benefit unique riparian plant communities, rare migratory birds and species like the endangered ocelot and Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. At approximately 100,000 acres, the refuge is comprised of more than 145 tracts of unique and vital habitat connecting otherwise isolated state, private and federal lands to sustain world-class biodiversity in the Rio Grande Valley. It supports about fifteen species protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Defenders of Wildlife mapped proposed new border wall in the Lower Rio Grande Valley based on the Department of Homeland Security’s recent waivers of 28 conservation and public health and safety laws to speed construction in Hidalgo and Cameron counties, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s announcement of contracts to begin building the first 14 miles of concrete levee wall in February of 2019 (Map 1, Map 2, Map 3). Newly waived and contracted wall segments would cut through, eliminate or effectively seal off more than 2,750 acres of Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, as well as Bentsen Rio Grande State Park, the National Butterfly Center and the La Lomita Chapel.
II. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirms that the border wall will irreparably damage the LRGV Refuge wildlife corridor, destroying ecologically sensitive habitat, blocking wildlife migration, causing widespread death for terrestrial animals, and further imperiling endangered species.
Records show that when the Service first conveyed misgivings about the wall proposal to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last spring, staff worried that it was “a crap shoot,” as DHS may “waive the environmental laws (again) and do whatever they want despite our concerns” (Document 6). The Service outlined the destructive impacts of wall construction on natural resources, highlighting that it would create significant habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation, restrict wildlife movement and increase mortality for endangered ocelot and jaguarundi, among other concerns (Document 6 Attachment).
In response to a letter from CBP to the Service soliciting input on its more specific proposal for wall construction in Hidalgo and Starr Counties last summer (Document 7), Service employees elaborated in email on the concerns they had previously raised. Notably, they stated that “ecotourism and related county-wide income will suffer significantly,” conservation lands south of the wall “will serve as an ecological sink,” “this project will create widespread death for terrestrial organisms” and “cumulatively result in dis-functionality of the wildlife corridor along the river” (Document 8).
The records include a draft response letter to CBP where the Service formally expressed its “concerns related to federally listed species, other federal trust resources, and Santa Ana and Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuges” (Document 9; Document 9 Attachment). The draft describes detrimental impacts of CBP’s proposal to build an “impermeable barrier,” including reduced habitat connectivity affecting ocelot and jaguarundi movement, limited access to water sources for imperiled species, and reduced species gene flow (Document 9 Attachment). It illuminates the agency’s fears that flood events will leave “wildlife trapped behind the levee wall to drown or starve,” and that the wall will limit escape routes from wildfire and cause direct wildlife mortality during construction (Document 9 Attachment).
Notably, these concerns identified by Service staff with specialized knowledge of the resources at risk, as well as the agency’s recommendation that CBP consider technology and other mechanisms instead of installation of levee or bollard walls, were omitted from the Service’s final letter to CBP (Document 10).
III. The Department of the Interior is muzzling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from communicating its concerns regarding construction of the border wall through LRGV Refuge.
The documents reveal that Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Ryan Zinke instructed the Service to “support the border security mission” and “get any correspondence on this topic cleared up the food chain” (Document 11). Service employees lamented that they were not permitted to offer any comments on the wall proposal and were instead advised to “play possum” while the administration executes its plans (Document 12). They were warned to “stand down” on the topic (Document 13) and submit any official correspondence to DOI (Document 14).
Additional records demonstrate that Service employees are not permitted to speak directly with news media (Document 15), and that DOI has exercised significant message control over the agency, preventing it from disclosing any information to the public regarding wall impacts to wildlife and habitat (Document 16). The consequences for public disclosure could be severe, with one staff member commenting that they would avoid discussing the wall with news media “since I would like to remain employed at least for a few more years” (Document 17). Service staff were even cautioned to “refrain from making any comments via email to one another or others” because “your emails are FOIA-able” (Document 18).
IV. Congress is currently considering authorizing more funding for border barrier construction in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Congress already authorized approximately $1.3 billion for construction of concrete levee wall, bollard fencing and other barriers along the southwest border in San Diego, California and in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley as part of the final FY 2018 Omnibus Spending bill. President Trump is now pushing Congress to allocate an additional $5 billion for additional wall construction in its FY 2019 spending bill, and would be “willing” to shut down the federal government if his demands are not met.
The current FY 2019 House Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill includes the $5 billion for the construction of 200 miles of additional wall in unspecified locations along the border, while the Senate bill includes $1.6 billion for the construction of an additional 65 miles in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas.