Federal government scientists raised red flags last year about President Trump’s proposed wall for the U.S.-Mexico border, suggesting that it could harm the habitats of imperiled species living in the ecologically diverse region. Constructing a physical barrier in southern Texas, some said, should be avoided if possible.
Interior Department officials stripped from a key letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection a number of warnings by career biologists and wildlife managers about the potential impacts of the border wall on the area’s rare cats and other animals, according to new documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The deletions from a letter that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately sent in 2017, shown in documents provided to the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife, are the latest example of the Trump administration brushing aside career wildlife officials' recommendations when their conclusions clash with political priorities.
In emails months before the letter was crafted, a key Interior Department official made it clear to Fish and Wildlife Service officials that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke “has indicated we are to support the border security mission.”
The construction of a wall along the entire southern border ranks among Trump’s highest priorities, dating to his 2016 campaign. The president is threatening to partially shut down the federal government before Christmas in a bid to extract more funding from Democrats for the wall. House and Senate Democratic leaders are set to sit down with Trump on Tuesday to discuss border wall funding and the federal budget.
But the Trump administration has been preparing to build the border wall well before securing all the money. In August 2017, CBP asked the Fish and Wildlife Service for its input on how animals would be affected by the construction of 60 miles of levee and bollard wall in Hidalgo and Starr counties, near the southern tip of Texas, the documents show. Construction on an eight-mile section of the wall there is set to begin in February.
Jonathan Andrew, a borderlands coordinator at the Interior Department, had previously told Fish and Wildlife officials that the department should be backing Trump’s border wall effort, according to the documents. “The Secretary has indicated we are to support the border security mission so make sure you get any correspondence on this topic cleared up the food chain,” he wrote in a March 2017 email.
Months later, by September, wildlife biologists and managers at Fish and Wildlife, which is part of the Interior Department, penned a list of “informal comments” on the possible impacts. In a draft letter prepared that month, career wildlife employees wrote that they were concerned the border wall would reduce “habitat connectivity” for rare ocelots and jaguarundi that roam the Santa Ana and Lower Rio Grande Valley national wildlife refuges.
While some fencing already exists in the two Texas counties, officials wrote that erecting more border wall in the region may limit animals’ access to drinking water and the intermingling within the cats' populations. If the cats' choice of mates narrowed, it could raise the risk of inbreeding.
These experts voiced concerns about the wall “leaving terrestrial wildlife trapped behind the levee wall to drown or starve” during floods. Fish and Wildlife suggested constructing berms south of the levee to give animals a path to flee from the flood-prone river valley.
Wildlife officials also suggested in the draft letter that CBP cap large holes dug for fencing posts, so wildlife would not get trapped in them. They also warned that an expanded border wall would make it difficult to fight wildfires on the tracts of U.S. territory that end up south of the wall.
“In general, the Service recommends considering technology, additional border patrol agents and other mechanisms, when possible, instead of installation of levee or bollard walls,” the agency concluded in the draft letter.
That line and other sentences specifically outlining the risk from floods, fires and the severing of habitat did not make it into the final letter that Amy Lueders, director of Fish and Wildlife’s Southwest Region, ultimately sent CBP on Oct. 13.
The revelation is not sitting well with environmental groups. “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,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and chief executive of Defenders of Wildlife. “But we won’t stand for it, and neither should Congress.”
A review by Defenders of Wildlife found that the new wall segments would end up “destroying, fragmenting and/or effectively severing more than 2,750″ acres of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Hidalgo County.
The Fish and Wildlife Service referred questions about the documents to Zinke’s office. When reached for comment about why the edits were made, Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift said the department “doesn’t comment on leaked draft documents.”
The documents were not leaked to reporters; they were released under public-records law and provided to The Washington Post.
Scientists outside the federal government said the points raised by career wildlife officials in the draft letter are worth considering while erecting the wall.
“All of the recommendations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection are important and are based on valid environmental and wildlife science,” said William Ripple, a professor of ecology at Oregon State University. The point about habitat connectivity, he added, is “compelling and should be taken seriously.”
Kenneth Madsen, an associate geography professor at Ohio State University who studies international borders, said the sort of concerns outlined in the draft letter are no secret within the scientific community. The concerns “are all the types of things that people are talking about,” he said.
The final letter did include one key objection raised by career officials — concern about how the project would affect the economic livelihood of a region that depends on tourism. The construction of a border wall in Santa Ana, as proposed last year, would have cut off the main visitors center from almost all of the rest of the refuge.
“This could result in a reduction in visitation due to a perceived unsafe and unwelcoming atmosphere, which in turn could impact local economies,” the final letter read.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also did ultimately warn border officials that lighting along the wall may disturb nocturnal animals, including ocelots, and that a 150-foot enforcement zone around the wall that usually includes patrol roads, lights and surveillance technology diminished the amount of dense brush through which the cats travel.
While CBP, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, sought comment from federal wildlife professionals about the border wall, it has the authority under anti-terrorism law to suspend dozens of environmental-protection laws to quickly build the wall. Just last month, the government awarded a $167 million contract to build eight more miles of border wall in southern Texas.
Elsewhere in the country, Trump administration officials have pursued more energy development and other goals despite the concerns of on-the-ground wildlife officials.
In January, Zinke signed off on a land swap with the tiny Alaskan village of King Cove to allow the construction of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a critical feeding ground for migratory birds as well as caribou and other species. All but 15,000 of the refuge’s 315,000-acre expanse is wilderness, and Fish and Wildlife officials had warned that the town’s plan to bisect it with a 12-mile road could undermine the refuge’s integrity.
Last spring, Fish and Wildlife officials produced an analysis of the two routes Alaska is contemplating through the refuge. It concluded that both would have “major” impacts on brants, tundra swans, emperor geese, bears, fish and, potentially, caribou.
Similarly, service officials have cautioned in recent months that seismic testing for oil and natural gas farther north in Alaska in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could harm imperiled species there, such as polar bears.