McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat who represents the Gulf Coast region of deep South Texas, added his voice to a national webinar on Thursday against what he says are harmful effects to the environment caused by border wall construction.
In a videotaped message played during the afternoon event hosted by the National Lawyers Guild NYC Animal Rights Committee, and the Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity, Vela said, “The border wall that exists separates and intimidates our communities, encroaches on landowner rights, and harms and endangers wildlife.”
He accused the Trump administration of “funneling billions of dollars into an ineffective and damaging border wall. … It is clear that the border wall does more harm than good.”
He was joined by several environmentalists, including the head of the National Butterfly Center, which has fought in court a border wall in South Texas.
The webinar was held after criticism erupted against the Biden administration for not shoring up breaches in the levee wall that were cut through in parts of South Texas during border wall construction, and which leave the area vulnerable to flooding as hurricane season approaches. When President Joe Biden took office, he halted further construction of the border wall. But the breaches and cuts were left unrepaired.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on April 30 announced his agency would fix the levees in South Texas, but he also has said that his department remains committed to border security.
And that has drawn concerns by environmentalists that DHS might complete portions of the border wall.
During testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday, Mayorkas said they are studying ways to fill in gaps in border wall construction, which environmentalists say could further limit and restrict wildlife from reaching food, shelter and mates.
“We are studying the very issue,” Mayorkas said. “About how is the most effective way to address gates and completion of gates and the closing of gaps, that is something that is under review now.”
But speaker after speaker affiliated with environmental organizations during Thursday’s webinar reiterated how they believe the gates and metal bollards and roadways alongside the border wall have hurt local ecology and threaten endangered species and wildlife along the Southwest border.
John Buse, general counsel and legal director for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, said jaguars in the West have been especially threatened by the border wall, which prevents them from roaming their normal hundreds of miles to seek food and mates. They are a transnational species that roam in corridors from northern Mexico to the Southwest United States and their routes into Arizona and New Mexico have been cut off by border wall construction.
An area where they are particularly affected is in the Peloncillo Mountains of southeastern Arizona and western New Mexico, where two deserts converge into a critical habitat for the large cats, which can travel upwards of 500 miles.
The nearby San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge has long been an area where they could find water, but that is where a 30-foot-tall metal wall has been put up through an area rich with artesian wells the cats used. A June 2020 report prepared by a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service employee found a decrease in the well water due to pumping of water by construction crews building the 19-miles of border wall. Fish & Wildlife is the federal agency that manages the wildlife refuge.
Buse says they want the border wall removed and the land restored back to what it was before barrier construction began.
Bryan Bird, Southwest Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife, said they want all border wall funding transferred to the Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for wall removal, remediation and habitat restoration.
“Construction of border wall fences and related infrastructure, such as roads negatively impacts animal habit, erodes soil, causes flooding and results in other ecologic damage,” Rep. Vela said. “This is all detrimental to the Southwest border region, which has long been a critical migration route for species like ocelots and black bears. The region has also played a prominent role in focusing on binational efforts to restore endangered species like jaguars, Mexican wolves and bison.”
(Border wall) is all detrimental to the Southwest border region, which has long been a critical migration route for species like ocelots and black bears.”U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas
Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director of the nonprofit National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, called the border wall “ecocide,” and said it is threatening many species in South Texas, including butterflies that are necessary for pollination of plants.
The National Butterfly Center, which has property on the Rio Grande, has been exempted by Congress from border wall construction. But that is only after much fighting and lawsuits filed by Wright’s organization to preserve the lands.
Areas adjacent to their property, however, have been cleared for all-weather border roads to run alongside the border barrier, and she says crucial vegetation has been lost.
“We do not want this to happen to our land. We do not want it to happen to anyone’s lands,” she said.
Her organization also has filed a federal lawsuit against a 3-mile private border wall built alongside the river next to their property. The case is pending in federal court, and at a hearing last week, the government announced it has hired a firm to determine if the structure violates the international boundary water treaty with Mexico. The government has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the International Boundary and Water Commission against Fisher Industries, which built the galvanized steel border wall on private land.
“The Department of Justice has approved the expenditure to hire their own expert,” Treviño-Wright told Border Report following the May 5 status hearing before U.S. District Judge Randy Crane, of McAllen, Texas. “And that they would be conducting a comprehensive review. And last week they came and did soil sampling. And they’d be doing their own flood modeling.”
She called it “a complete 180” and said “now the government is actually is pursuing the case, which they really haven’t done for a year and a half.”
On Thursday, Treviño-Wright said that “less than 5% of our native habitat remains” in South Texas, and pollinators, like butterflies, are essential for ensuring these plants continue to thrive. “However, they put the border wall in the preservation zone,” she said.