Is a Butterfly Sanctuary in Danger of Being Bulldozed to Build President Trump’s Border Wall?

President Trump's proposed border wall is expected to have a significant impact on the surrounding environment.

  • Published 12 December 2018

The stated purpose of President Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is to provide national security and stem illegal immigration. However, construction of this impediment will likely produce a number of unintended consequences — for instance, a butterfly sanctuary near the Rio Grande River in Mission, Texas, is at risk of being partially bulldozed in order to make way for this project.

Marianna Treviño-Wright, director of the National Butterfly Center, told the Texas Observer that she first noticed construction crews attempting to clear some of her land back in the summer of 2017:

Marianna Treviño-Wright, director of the National Butterfly Center, said she was startled to find the work crew cutting down trees with a chainsaw and clearing swaths of vegetation with a brush mower along a road that follows a flood-control levee bisecting their property. Wright says the center has spent the last 15 years painstakingly restoring the 100 acres of former onion field into a habitat with flowers and trees for more than 200 species of butterflies.

“The supervisor of the work crew couldn’t produce any paperwork authorizing him to be there on our private property,” Wright told the Observer. “He told me not to talk to his crew and that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would be in touch, and then they left.”

The National Butterfly Center filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration a few months later. While that lawsuit is still ongoing, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling by a lower court allowing the Trump administration to bypass environmental laws to build the wall when they refused to hear a case put forth by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and two other environmental groups in December 2018:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said it would decline to hear a challenge to the Trump administration’s proposed border wall brought by environmental groups who say construction could threaten endangered animals and violate environmental laws.

The groups asked the court to reject a 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton that provides the executive branch with authority to waive environmental laws if those laws impede construction of barriers and roads near the border.

The law was expanded by Congress in 2005 to give the Department of Homeland Security authority to waive “all legal requirements” that could stand in the way of border construction.

Treviño-Wright told the San Antonio Express-News that bulldozers could start plowing over land owned by the National Butterfly Center as soon as February 2019, and that current construction plans would divide the sanctuary, leaving about 70 percent of its land on the southern side of the wall:

Bulldozers are expected to soon plow through the protected habitat of the National Butterfly Center along the Rio Grande to clear the way for President Trump’s border wall, which got a green light from the Supreme Court.

Hundreds of thousands of butterflies flit through the center’s 100-acre sanctuary in Mission. But 70 percent of the land will eventually be on the other side the wall, said Marianna Wright, the executive director.

“Just like farmers get crop yield in acres and inches, we get butterflies based on what we have planted in acres and inches,” Wright said. “So having a wide swath of our property bulldozed is going to negatively impact the volume of the species and diversity of the species.”

The wall could be up to three stories tall, with 18-foot steel beams, called bollards, rising from a concrete base. Construction through the refuge could start in February.

President Trump’s border wall still faces a number of political and financial obstacles, but a map of the proposed wall obtained by the Texas Observer shows that construction is indeed planned to cut through this butterfly sanctuary. The National Butterfly Center launched a GoFundMe page in December 2018 to raise funds for their continued legal fight against the government, as well as to pay for the seemingly inevitable repairs that will be needed after a portion of the area is bulldozed over:

Butterflies aren’t the only creatures impacted by man-made walls. A video from Vox explains how the border wall will have an impact on other animals that live near the Rio Grande, such as ocelots and tortoises:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) wrote on their website that they are “committed to environmental and cultural stewardship while performing our core missions of border security.” However, a 10 December report from the Washington Post noted that some of the recommendations from biologists and wildlife managers were stripped from a key letter sent to the agency:

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.

But a number of those concerns did not 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 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.

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