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Environmental group demands review of border project’s impact on endangered ocelots

Ocelots are endemic to the southwestern United States, yet today there are fewer than 50 in the country and they all live in South Texas, according to conservationists.

(CN) — An environmental group on Tuesday threatened to sue the Department of Homeland Security for not considering how its planned construction of 13 miles of border levee wall along the Rio Grande in South Texas will affect endangered ocelots.

The Center for Biological Diversity claims DHS has not consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the project in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley will not jeopardize around 50 ocelots who live in the region, in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Citing the need to reduce the risk of flooding for border towns near McAllen, Texas, DHS announced the project in July but said it would not involve building new border barriers.

President Joe Biden issued a proclamation on his first day in office directing the agency to pause work on each wall-construction project on the border for 60 days to figure out how to spend money Congress had appropriated for barriers along the Rio Grande, which divides Texas and Mexico.

Donald Trump made fencing construction on the Southwest border a priority during his presidency, but pushed through construction of just 21 new miles, while replacing 34 miles, despite repeatedly using authority granted by a 2005 law to waive dozens of laws, including environmental statutes, to fast-track construction.

Biden’s DHS is citing the same authority to dodge environmental review of its levee-wall restoration project, Center for Biological Diversity staff attorney Paulo Lopes said in a statement.

Though the Biden administration plans to build 6-foot walls atop levees, compared to the 18-foot walls built under Trump, the group says like Trump’s wall, the new levee project includes a 150-foot-wide enforcement zone next to the Rio Grande that will be cleared of vegetation for installment of roads, cameras, sensors and bright lights that will stay on 24/7.

“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,” Lopes said.

While DHS has not revealed where exactly the 13.4 miles of levee wall will go up, the center says much of it will be in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which is comprised of 100,000 acres and connects state parks, private conservation properties and federal lands, providing a corridor for endangered species like the ocelot to move about the area.

“The levee project construction will bisect and fragment the refuge, effectively sealing off vital habitat from the rest of the United States and causing extensive damage to the wildlife corridor along the river,” the environmental group states in its Tuesday letter of intent to sue sent to the leaders of DHS, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Interior Department.

Ocelots flourish in Central and South America. They are endemic to the southwestern United States, yet today there are fewer than 50 in the country and they all live in South Texas, according to environmentalists.

Most Texas ocelots live on private ranch lands, but about a dozen dwell further south in the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, a 98,000-acre property in Cameron County that is part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Sightings are rare because they live in dense thorny brush and venture out at night to hunt for rodents and lizards, and the center claims the Biden’s administration’s project will destroy thousands of acres of this native vegetation.

The government’s eagerness to break ground without endangered species and environmental-impact review seems at odds with its long-running ocelot recovery plan, headed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in which it is acquiring land to create a 5-mile ocelot corridor connecting 2 million acres of South Texas ranchland with 1.3 million acres in a wildlife protection zone full of ocelots in northern Mexico.

A USFWS spokeswoman Tuesday referred questions about the levee repair work to DHS, but said, “The ocelot recovery plan remains unchanged and the agency continues to follow the plan.”

DHS did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The small group of ocelots who live in the wildlife refuge have genetic problems from inbreeding, and the recovery plan is meant to give them a way to reach new mates in northern Mexico.

But the Center for Biological Diversity claims the levee restoration project will impede this effort by blocking migration routes.

There is now another threat looming for Texas ocelots: Governor Greg Abbott’s plans to build border barriers on state land and private land with owners’ permission with around $1 billion set aside by the Legislature and $54 million in private donations –construction the Republican governor claims is needed to keep undocumented immigrants from illegally entering the state.

Abbott held a press conference in Starr County on Saturday to tout the first 900 feet of border wall contractors have built on state land, but he was cagey when asked for details about where other sections will be erected and at what cost.

“We’re going to spend as much as it takes to build as much wall as we possibly can,” he said.

Abbott’s office did not respond Tuesday when asked if the state barriers will include accommodations, such as migration corridors, for ocelots.

Both Texas and the Texas General Land Office have sued Biden and DHS officials in federal court, claiming they are refusing to construct barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border with funds Congress appropriated for that purpose.

The cases were consolidated and assigned to U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez in McAllen.

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