President Trump wants to build a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border to keep people out. But a barrier that size could have another consequence: putting protected animals at risk.
As Congress debates funding for Trump’s wall to end the shutdown, the administration has already started building. In the process, its waived more 30 environmental regulations that could harm more than 100 plant and animal species that live along the border.
So far, the Trump administration has targeted three areas across two states to pave the way for the construction of about 40 miles of border wall. Most recently, the Department of Homeland Security waived environmental protections near Santa Teresa, New Mexico, just north of El Paso, Texas, to clear the way for a 20-mile stretch on Monday.
The regulations — which include the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act — designate refuge areas for threatened species and aim to limit pollution from the wall’s construction. Bypassing the laws could put many of the animal species along the border, including jaguars and wolves, at risk, experts warn. And the administration doesn’t need to seek congressional or public input.
The previous waivers issued by the Trump administration apply to stretches of the border south of Calexico and San Diego in California. The state has already sued the Department of Homeland Security in an attempt to block construction. So have environmental groups and Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, who argue that scaling back environmental protections without proper environmental review would harm as many as 100 plant and animal species that live along the border.
“When [animal] populations become isolated and very small, you can get things like inbreeding and depression,” said Jesse Lasky, a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University who studies the border environment. “You can get a loss of genetic diversity that harms their ability to adapt. In order to survive the coming effects of climate change, those species will need genetic diversity to adapt.”
For example, a border wall would limit jaguars’ access to other individuals and keep the population from breeding. Only one jaguar was left in the U.S. — until a second was spotted in 2017.
Although the Trump administration hasn’t waived environmental protection in the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge yet, its one of the places targeted for border wall construction. Over 400 bird species, as well as an endangered ocelot, call the refuge home. Building a wall there, critics warn, would essentially destroy the area.
Where the Trump administration has applied the most recent waiver, in Santa Terera, the barrier currently in place along the border has a series of gaps that keep vehicles from crossing but allow wildlife free passage. DHS, however, wants to build a 20-mile-long “bollard” wall, a fence impermeable to both humans and animals. The notice posted in the Federal Register on Monday calls the region in question an area of “high illegal entry,” where tens of thousands of immigrants have crossed without permission. Eventually, Trump wants the wall to cover more than 1,000 miles.
"There is presently a need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States to deter illegal crossings in the project area," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said.
An impenetrable wall in the area could also harm the mule deer, coyote, and desert cottontail, as well as birds such as golden eagle, burrowing owl, and roadrunner, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental organizations that’s sued the Trump administration for waiving these environmental protections to build wall prototypes near San Diego. The group is now considering another suit for the new stretch in Santa Teresa.
“That could not be built in compliance with environmental laws,” Brian Segee, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, told VICE News. “That would lead to numerous extinctions.”
The law the Trump administration has invoked to waive these environmental protections, the Real ID Act of 2005, was passed in the wake of 9/11. Its primary purpose was to tighten up standards around state-issued IDs, but tucked into the law is a provision that allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive most regulations — environmental or otherwise — to build border barriers without any congressional oversight. The barriers built since 2005 under the law have received little review and no public input.
A DHS spokesperson told VICE News that public comments could be left on the Federal Register but did not clarify whether the decision would be subject to revision based on those comments.
Back in 2008, the Bush administration issued five waivers under the law to allow the construction of more than 250 miles of fence along the border in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. At the time, environmentalists opposed them for the same reasons they oppose the new sections now.
Cover image: Posters in support of the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, home to 400-plus species of birds and several endangered wildcats on Aug. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)