Sunday, August 24, 2008

Conservationists warn of border fence's impact

Associated Press / Houston Chronicle
August 22, 2008

by Christopher Sherman

MISSION, Texas — The Bush administration's recently proposed changes to rules involving endangered species could lead to projects like the fence being built along the U.S.-Mexico border that could threaten endangered wildlife, the Sierra Club warned Friday.

"We're talking about animals already pushed to the brink of extinction," Liz Walsh, chairwoman of the group's endangered species committee, said at a news conference near a border fence construction site.

The Rio Grande Valley ranks third in the country in terms of the number of endangered and threatened species, and habitat loss poses one of the area's biggest threats. The border fence will destroy habitat and make it harder to maintain the numbers for a variety of animals, including endangered large cats such as the ocelot and jaguarundi.

The group drew parallels between the April 1 waiver of dozens of environmental and cultural preservation laws by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to speed border fence construction and the rule changes proposed this month that would no longer require government scientists to weigh in on the impact to endangered species from projects such as highways and dams.

Michael Degnan, a Sierra Club representative from Washington, D.C., said the border wall was a "very compelling example" of what can happen when rigorous scientific study of potential impacts is not required.

The new changes unveiled last week by the U.S. Department of the Interior would apply to any project a federal agency would fund, build or authorize that the agency itself determines is unlikely to harm endangered wildlife and their habitat.

The revisions also would limit which effects can be considered harmful and set a 60-day deadline for wildlife experts to evaluate a project when they are asked to become involved. If no decision is made within 60 days, the project can move ahead. Agencies could not consider global warming in their analysis.

After Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived the normal process of environmental analysis for the border fence, the agency produced Environmental Stewardship Plans that officials said reflected a commitment to limiting the project's impact.

The agency maintained that much of the environmental study was still taking place, but that the waivers just allowed it to get started before the studies were concluded.

A plan for the Rio Grande Valley portion of the border fence noted that hundreds of small holes will be built into the fence so that small animals can move through the barrier.

Still, the plan said government contractors will clear about 508 acres of land in the Rio Grande Valley.

Despite the access holes for the endangered cats, the plan acknowledged that the fence "will likely impact wildlife movement, access to traditional water sources, and potential for gene flow" because some of the species cross the border into Mexico to mate.

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