A coalition of more than 170 organizations supporting wildlife conservation and public lands sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen today expressing serious concern over plans to expand the United States-Mexico border wall across environmentally sensitive conservation areas of Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and National Butterfly Center, Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area.
The groups, which include American Bird Conservancy, American Birding Association, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Texas Audubon, are steadfastly opposed to a border wall across these parts of Texas due to the negative effects it would have on birds and other wildlife, and their habitats.
A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) letter states that: “DHS remains committed to environmental stewardship. DHS has been consulting, and intends to continue doing so, with stakeholders including federal and state resource agencies and affected landowners. Such consultation facilitates DHS’s assessment of potential impacts and informs its efforts to minimize, to the extent possible, potential impacts to the environment, wildlife, and cultural and historic resources.” But the department has exercised waiver authority on nine occasions to avoid compliance with environmental laws.
“We urge that the environmental waivers be withdrawn, and that wall construction be halted in areas that threaten birds and other wildlife in favor of better high-tech alternatives,” said Steve Holmer of American Bird Conservancy. “It is crucial that DHS prevent unintended impacts to already fragile wildlife ecosystems within some of the country’s most biologically diverse parks and reserves. The proposed Border Wall and its associated levees, additional structures, fencing, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors pose an unacceptably high risk to flora and fauna.”
The Lower Rio Grande Valley is a special region, gifted with an unusually wide variety and abundance of birds and other wildlife. Protected areas in the region attract large numbers of wildlife-watching tourists from around the world, and provide essential economic activity in Texas. According to a 2011 Texas A&M University study, nature tourism — primarily birdwatching — contributes $463 million annually to the local economy.
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, which includes part of the World Birding Center, hosts several threatened species and is considered to be one of the nation’s top birdwatching destinations. The park drew nearly 30,000 visitors in 2016 and, as with other state parks, tourism has been growing by about 5 percent annually.
According to a 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service analysis, more than 100 federally listed endangered species, from obscure plants to black-footed ferrets, could be impacted by a completed wall. Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed species and birds of conservation concern in the border region include Bald Eagle, Black-capped Vireo, Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, California Condor, California Least Tern, Coastal California Gnatcatcher, Golden Eagle, Least Bell’s Vireo, Masked Bobwhite (Quail), Mexican Spotted Owl, Northern Aplomado Falcon, Piping Plover, Red-crowned Parrot, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Western Snowy Plover, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Yuma Clapper Rail.