Career officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, like many biologists who have studied wildlife along the U.S.-Mexico border, were concerned last year about the construction of President Trump's border wall. They worried it could harm animals there that know no human-drawn boundaries.
Federal wildlife biologists and managers were concerned about animals falling into large holes dug for fence posts, dying in floods when trapped against the wall and otherwise having their habitats severed by the man-made barrier.
But a number of those concerns did not always make it to border officials considering the wall’s construction.
Interior Department officials stripped from a key letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection a number of warnings by career staffers about the potential impacts of the border wall on the area’s rare cats and other animals, Juliet Eilperin and I reported on Monday.
The deletions from a Fish and Wildlife letter ultimately sent in 2017, revealed in documents released under the Freedom of Information Act 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.” When reached for comment, the Interior Department, which houses the Service, declined to answer questions about the letter.
The construction of a wall along the entire southern border ranks among Trump’s highest priorities. Right now, 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 since well before securing all the money for it. 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.
By September, wildlife biologists and managers at Fish and Wildlife penned a draft letter of “informal comments” on the possible impacts.
- Career wildlife employees wrote 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.
The staffers' conclusion in the draft letter: “In general, the Service recommends considering technology, additional Border Patrol agents and other mechanisms, when possible, instead of installation of levee or bollard walls.”
This is not the first time Trump administration goals have taken priority over the recommendations of Fish and Wildlife Service staffers since Trump took office.
- Izembek National Wildlife Refuge: In January, for example, Zinke signed off on a land swap with the tiny Alaskan village of King Cove to allow the construction of a road through that 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 in 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.
- Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Similarly, Service officials have cautioned in recent months that seismic testing for oil and natural gas further north in Alaska could harm imperiled species there, such as polar bears. After two Alaska Native corporations and a small oil service firm applied for the right to conduct tests there this winter, Fish and Wildlife officials described the plan as “not adequate” and concluded that it showed “a lack of applicable details for proper agency review.”
In an interview earlier this year with Alaska Public Media, Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Joe Balash said he and other appointees had experienced a “really difficult management challenge” with Fish and Wildlife Service employees when it came to carrying out the administration’s plans to expand drilling in the Arctic refuge.
“You could just tell from all of the nonverbal communication going on in the room that they were not happy to see us, they were not happy to talk about this, they still weren’t necessarily prepared to accept this new reality,” Balash said.
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— WHAT'S HAPPENING IN POLAND: In Katowice, the United Nation’s 24th annual climate change conference meets for the third time since brokering the 2015 Paris climate accord, and The Post’s Chris Mooney writes the surge of optimism following the signing of that agreement has faded. That’s because of the planned U.S. withdrawal from the Paris deal and recent reports showing many nations are failing to meet even the initial round of promises made in Paris.
Here is what’s happening at the conference, per Mooney:
- What’s on the agenda? “Countries are performing a detailed annotation of the Paris agreement, drafting a ‘rule book’ that will span hundreds of pages. That may sound bureaucratic, but it’s key to addressing many of the flash points."
- What is being done? Negotiations on how exactly to implement the Paris accord are advancing, including events starting Tuesday where world leaders gather to answer big questions. “Friday is the last day of the conference, but pros know these events tend to run long. On Friday — or after — we will be waiting for an overall statement or decision from the meeting which may signal how much has been achieved.”
- Will countries do anything ambitious? “Pressure is mounting for countries ... to at minimum give a strong signal that they understand that the science is looking worse and worse, and the world’s progress isn’t matching that outlook,” Mooney writes, adding most countries are not likely to make new promises.
- What is the role of the United States in Poland? Even though the United States is technically still in the Paris agreement and has sent nearly four dozen delegates to Poland, “the country as a whole is being cast in an antagonistic role in the talks,” including with a Monday event that promoted fossil fuels and nuclear energy.
- About that fossil-fuel event... Demonstrators disrupted a U.S.-sponsored talk promoting fossil fuels happening alongside the conference.
- "Trump’s top White House adviser on energy and climate stood before the crowd of some 200 people on Monday and tried to burnish the image of coal, the fossil fuel that powered the industrial revolution," The Post's Griff Witte and Brady Dennis report. "The protest was a piece of theater, and so too was the United States’ public embrace of coal and other dirty fuels at an event otherwise dedicated to saving the world from the catastrophic impacts of climate change. The standoff punctuated the awkward position the American delegation finds itself in as career bureaucrats seek to advance the Trump administration’s agenda in an international arena aimed at cutting back on fossil fuels."
- What other countries are seen as roadblocks? “Saudi Arabia is also drawing the ire of climate activists after it played a central role – with the support of the U.S., Russia, and Kuwait – in blocking the idea of ‘welcoming’ the IPCC report" describing the dire state of the climate," according to Mooney.
— Climate scientists count human-driven extreme weather events: Climate change led to 15 separate extreme weather events last year, according to in-depth reports published by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The report from the Bulletin, which has been published every year since 2011, aims to determine what weather events can be attributed to the changing climate, The Post’s Sarah Kaplan and Angela Fritz report.
“This is the second consecutive year that scientists have identified an event that could not have happened without human-induced warming,” she adds. “Scientists have traditionally been wary of blaming any individual event on climate change… But thanks to improved data collection and increasingly sophisticated climate models, researchers can see the influence of climate change on specific disasters, such as six days of rain over northeast Bangladesh.”
— Climate protesters storm Pelosi's office — again: Nearly 150 activists were arrested on Capitol Hill during a climate demonstration on Monday as a group organized by the Sunrise Movement protested outside the offices of Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi, the likely next speaker, and Steny Hoyer, the incoming House majority leader.
The group is pushing House Democrats to prioritize the “Green New Deal,” which has been touted by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), in the next Congress. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a third top Democrat whose office was protested Monday, told the demonstrators he is committed to establishing a House select committee on the "Green New Deal."
Thank you everyone at @sunrisemvmt @justicedems for making your voices heard & making #ClimateChange a top issue. We need real change. We need a select committee. We need a #GreenNewDeal. And we need to work together w/ all @HouseDemocrats Committees to make it work!— Rep. Jim McGovern (@RepMcGovern) December 10, 2018
— Political appointee is now public-records gatekeeper at Interior: In a move first noticed by the environmental advocacy group the Center for Biological Diversity, Dan Jorjani, a former Koch Foundation strategist who in 2017 was appointed Interior's principal deputy solicitor, is now the department’s chief FOIA officer.
The center criticized the decision to move the role from one filled by a career staffer to a political appointee. “Zinke is politicizing Interior’s Freedom of Information Act process to deny the public access to information and hide the oil industry’s dirty secrets,” Meg Townsend, the center’s open government attorney said in a statement.
— Trump team presses on with Saudi nuclear plans: Energy Secretary Rick Perry is moving forward with efforts to land a deal for U.S. companies to build nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia despite strong evidence the nation's crown prince played a ket role in the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In a statement on Monday, the department said Perry had just finished talks with Saudi Energy minister Khalid Al-Falih, the chief executive of Saudi Aramco and “other energy industry stakeholders,” calling the kingdom "an important ally, particularly in the energy space.”
But Congress is less kumbaya. "Any nuclear deal may be met with congressional opposition," Bloomberg News writes. “A bipartisan group of senators is seeking to punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s murder without undercutting their parallel effort to restrict U.S. support for a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.”
— More from the Energy Department: A Trump administration plan to reclassify some nuclear waste, lowering the status of some high-level radioactive waste, has concerned environmental groups who worry about just leaving the material in the ground.
Tweaking the bureaucratic status of waste leftover from nuclear weapon production could save the Energy Department money by making “disposal cheaper and easier,” the Associated Press reports.
“Current law defines high-level radioactive waste as resulting from processing irradiated nuclear fuel that is highly radioactive,” per the report. “The agency says the change could save the federal government $40 billion in cleanup costs across the nation's entire nuclear weapons complex, which includes the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina and Idaho National Laboratory.”
— EPA science adviser allowed oil lobby to edit journal article: A researcher who allowed an industry group to proofread and edit a journal article will this week lead a major review of air pollution standards, E&E News reports.
Tony Cox, named chairman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee by former EPA chief Scott Pruitt, also “accepted funding from the American Petroleum Institute (API) to help finance his research into particulate matter pollution,” per the report, which adds Cox “has been critical of EPA air pollution regulations and has said that research showing the connection between air pollution and serious human health consequences is overblown.”
— The road ahead for Tesla: The carmaker’s chief executive Elon Musk took a fresh set of shots at the Securities and Exchange Commission in a “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday, saying that he doesn’t respect the agency. Musk said that while he was abiding by the settlement after the agency sued him for allegedly misleading investors, it was not out of deference to the regulators. “I want to be clear: I do not respect the SEC. I do not respect them,” Musk said, as The Post’s Hamza Shaban reports. He also dismissed the idea that he could be controlled by the new chairwoman that replaced him because of the settlement. Musk said it was “not realistic in the sense that I am the largest shareholder in the company. And I can just call for a shareholder vote and get anything done that I want.”
— Macron throws a bone to "yellow vest" protesters: French President Emmanuel Macron issued a mea culpa and announced he would increase the nation’s minimum wage by 100 euros a month and slash overtime and some pension taxes to appease the violent protesters across the region, The Post’s James McAuley reports.
A brief televised address came as Macron faced his biggest crisis thus far, “the so-called ‘yellow vest’ movement, a popular uprising that began as a reaction to a carbon tax he had proposed but quickly became a revolt against Macron himself, who is widely perceived as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people."
- The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environment is scheduled to hold a hearing on a discussion draft of the 21st Century Transportation Fuels Act.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks is scheduled to hold a legislative hearing on Wednesday.
- The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds a holiday reception with the president of American Public Power Association on Thursday.
— Matthew Cappucci explains for The Post the formation of these rare "light pillars," accompanied by a similarly curious freezing fog.