Conservation group to sue DHS, CBP alleging failure to protect ocelots when building border levees

Border Report Tour

Photo by Tom Symlie, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The Biden administration is casting aside bedrock environmental protections with no regard for human health, wildlife or the law as it constructs border levees in South Texas, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity said.

The nonprofit conservation organization filed a formal notice of intent to sue the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, accusing them of failing to protect ocelots, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed as endangered in 1982.

The Center says the Biden administration is building the levees without any environmental review or attempt to avoid harming the ocelots and other wildlife, violating the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.

“The Biden administration is following Trump’s border wall playbook,” said Paulo Lopes, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s hypocritical to use safety as an excuse for repairing levees and then ignore federal laws that protect people and wildlife. These so-called repairs look more like an excuse to rush border wall construction.”

The Center says more than 13 miles of new levee walls will cut through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, family farms and other private property in Hidalgo County, Texas.

An ocelot cat display is seen at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge visitor center near Alamo, Texas, Wednesday, May 9, 2007. Wildlife enthusiasts fear this site could be spoiled by the fences and adjacent roads the U.S. government plans to erect along the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants and smugglers. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

On Aug. 24, Border Report spotted construction crews working on the levees east of the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Federal officials at the time said they were merely installing a “guardrail” to shore up the levees damaged by the Trump administration’s border wall construction.

CBP spokesman Thomas Gresback told Border Report: “This remediation work does not involve expanding the border barrier.”

The Center argues that even though the new levee walls are shorter, they are identical to the border levee walls constructed under the Trump administration. The Trump administration’s levees were topped with 18-foot-tall steel bollards, while the new walls use 6-foot-tall bollards atop the concrete river levees, the Center said.

Additionally, the new levee project includes a 150-foot-wide enforcement zone next to the river that will clear vegetation for roads for law enforcement and private property owners, lighting, cameras and sensors.

“This border wall project will turn wildlife habitat into an industrial zone, without any community input,” Lopes said. “These agencies should be considering alternatives, such as repairing the FEMA-approved earthen levees. Instead, this is becoming another gift to border wall contractors and a threat to some of the region’s rarest and most beautiful animals.”

The Center contends that DHS doesn’t have the authority to waive dozens of environmental laws to rush the construction of border levees. The Center added that the waiver authority under the 2005 REAL ID Act — which the Trump administration used dozens of times to fast-track border wall construction — refers only to the “construction of the barriers and roads” but makes no reference to levees or flood control.

In October, DHS announced that it would terminate all border-wall contracts within the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector. Additionally, DHS said, CBP will continue conducting biological, cultural, and natural resource surveys on areas where barrier plans exist, including those in the Rio Grande Valley. DHS said none of the environmental activities involve border barrier construction or permanent land acquisition and that all actions are consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that fewer than 50 ocelots remain in the United States — all in South Texas. The Center says habitat restoration, including creating wildlife corridors, is a priority for the Rio Grande wildlife refuge, adding that the levee project threatens what little remains of the ocelot habitat.

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