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Operation Rio Grande Too Dangerous

Defenders Files Complaint to Protect Endangered Ocelot, Jaguarundi

(08/18/1999) - Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, and the Frontera Audubon Society today announced that they have filed suit against the Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), and the Army Corp of Engineers regarding the proposed Operation Rio Grande Border Patrol project. The groups contend that the project will ruin some of the last remaining habitat for ocelots and jaguarundis, two endangered cat species. The plaintiffs filed suit in federal district court in Washington, D.C., claiming that the defendants violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in south Texas.

"INS and the Army Corps have legal obligations under the ESA and NEPA that they have not lived up to, and we intend to make sure that they do so," said Defenders President Rodger Schlickeisen. "These folks are supposed to be protecting us and our borders, not destroying rare cat habitat."

A project of the INS, Operation Rio Grande proposes to resurface roads, clear vegetation, and construct fences, lighting systems, and boat ramps along roughly 50 miles of the Rio Grande River. INS claims that such activities are needed for its Border Patrol to monitor drug trafficking and illegal immigration better. The groups charge that such construction and other activities will adversely affect several critically endangered species and will disturb important wildlife habitat on which thousands of plant and animal species rely.

"Alternative technologies that are not so invasive are available and should be promoted," said Mary Lou Cambell, conservation chair with Frontera Audubon Society.

The groups are opposed to neither the Border Patrol nor its mission. Rather, they believe the agency can accomplish its objectives while preserving lands along the Lower Rio Grande to protect wildlife and enhance bird watching and nature tourism.

"Fences and lights are going to prevent the remaining wild ocelots and jaguarundis in the region from dispersing and increasing their population sizes," said Dr. Melissa Grigione, conservation biologist with Defenders.

The lower Rio Grande Valley, which includes Starr, Hildago, and Cameron counties and where the project has already begun construction, is home to more than 2,200 species of plant and animal, making it one of the most biologically diverse regions in the United States. The valley also serves as a temporary home to thousands of migratory birds each season. Only five percent of the valley's historic habitat remains today, most of it lost to human encroachment. Fifteen endangered species call the valley home, including ocelots, jaguarundis, Aplomado falcons, and piping plovers -- all four of these species are on the brink of extinction.

"Fifty miles of floodlights along the Rio Grande will impact everything from moths and butterflies to birds, bats, and cats," said Jim Chapman, chair of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club. "For INS to say otherwise flies in the faces of common sense as well as good science."

Schlickeisen agreed and added, "Jaguarundi and ocelots don't recognize borders. They need be able to roam freely in what little habitat is left for them. Fragmenting this habitat even further could most surely mean the end for these two magnificent creatures and, quite possibly, for several more species. That's a price too high to pay, and this project must stop immediately." Defenders and the other groups are asking that all activities associated with Operation Rio Grande cease until appropriate measures can be taken to ensure long-term survival of species in the region. INS has released a draft environmental assessment and a biological assessment, but the groups charge that both documents are deficient and error-laden. The groups request that as a first step INS obtain a biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as required by the provisions of the ESA, and prepare an environmental impact statement as required by NEPA.

"We know INS has already started this project by placing portable lights in places like Brownsville," Schlickeisen explained. "They are planning to put up permanent 1,000 watt lights, razor fencing, and electric lines of all kinds while resurfacing miles of roads and clearing important vegetation. INS may be hoping to shed light on the area, but what they're really doing is pushing numerous endangered species further into the shadows of existence."

Defenders and the other groups are being represented in the case by the Washington, D.C., public-interest law firm Meyer and Glitzenstein.



Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270