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The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is a hotspot for illegal immigration, drug smuggling and biodiversity. It's where the Trump administration wants to build more than a hundred miles of border wall. The government has had problems acquiring private land, so it's building first in federal nature sanctuaries. As NPR's John Burnett reports, Trump's wall will bulldoze through a wildlife refuge network that has taken 40 years to establish.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Back in 1979, the idea was to save a strip of native habitat along the Rio Grande. Down here beside the moss-colored river, the call of the chachalaca is a familiar sound at sunrise.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CALLING)
BURNETT: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to protect this corridor from the farmers and developers who were rapidly transforming the southern tip of Texas, so it began to buy up pieces of land and assembled what they called a string of pearls. Today the agency owns 135 individual tracts stretching to the Gulf of Mexico. The corridor is known as the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. It's taken time for some people to get comfortable with the concept.
TONY ZAVALETA: When they first started buying up land, I was very upset, didn't believe it could work, didn't want the federal government to be my neighbor.
BURNETT: Tony Zavaleta is a retired anthropologist whose extended family has owned property on the serpentine river since Texas was part of New Spain. We're sitting on his deck, watching the sun sink over the thorn brush. From here, he has spotted a rare mountain lion prowling his property. Now he's a believer.
ZAVALETA: Forty years ago, there were no white-tailed deer anywhere near here. You'd have to go north or south to find white-tailed deer. Today the white-tailed deer are all over the place, and so it's been a huge success.
BURNETT: Fish and Wildlife tells NPR that a border wall could impact nearly 9,000 acres of its nature sanctuaries. Now wildlife conservationists are wondering how much of an obstruction the barrier will be to animals that range along the river. Betty Perez runs a ranch north of the town of La Hoya, where she rolls out a round bale of hay.
(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)
BETTY PEREZ: Come on, mamas. Let's go. Come on, Blanca.
BURNETT: In addition to her ranch work, she belongs to the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a private group adamantly opposed to the border wall. As soon as Trump announced his big, beautiful wall was coming, Perez knew the government would be looking for land it already owned.
PEREZ: The Fish and Wildlife land is what's being targeted first because it's easy. You know, it's the first thing you can get to without having to worry about all the process of buying land from people.
BURNETT: Betty Perez actually helped sustain the refuges by raising native plants that she sells to Fish and Wildlife. They use them to revegetate farmland and turn it back into natural terrain. She walks through her nursery, where most of the plants prick and stab a person.
PEREZ: This is wolfberry. This is the yucca, the Spanish Dagger. This is the whitebrush, blackbrush, catclaw acacia.
BURNETT: Wildlife defenders have fought the border barrier before. In the late 2000s, the Bush administration constructed 55 miles of non-contiguous border fence in the Rio Grande Valley. This time around, the Trump administration is building on twice that much.
PEREZ: So now they're wanting to fill those gaps in. And if there's a continuous wall, it would be very devastating for wildlife.
BURNETT: For deer and bobcat, for armadillos and javelina hogs, for the Texas tortoise and the small spotted ocelot, an endangered cat.
PEREZ: We're afraid that the wall will act like a barrier when it floods, which it does down here. We get the hurricanes down here in south Texas. And if that happens, the wildlife that's near the river is going to drown. The other thing that's happening is that when the wall - if the wall goes up, it blocks wildlife from getting to the river to drink. That's their main source of water.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
PEREZ: No barking. No.
BURNETT: Who in the government will speak up for the animals? Thirteen years ago, that person was Ken Merritt. He was the manager of the whole refuge complex in South Texas for Fish and Wildlife. When he learned that Bush's fence would traverse seven miles of refuge land, Merritt sounded the alarm.
KEN MERRITT: Back then - and I don't think it's any different than now - we had a very narrow refuge established along the river. If you cut that in half with a fence that really can't be accessed or crossed by terrestrial wildlife, you have a big problem.
BURNETT: He submitted an official report with an unambiguous conclusion. Walls and wildlife sanctuaries don't mix. But in the tense atmosphere after 9/11, when the government was anxious to beef up border security, he says...
MERRITT: That was not a well-received document.
BURNETT: In fact, Ken Merritt says because he opposed the border fence, he was sidelined at Fish and Wildlife. He retired the next year. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said they are concerned about the risk that a barrier poses to animals that cannot escape a flood. She says the service is working with Customs and Border Protection to construct large ramps leading to the gates in the wall, and those gates will be open during floods to let critters pass through. But Fish and Wildlife stopped short of saying it opposes the wall like Ken Merritt did in 2007. He says he stays in touch with colleagues who still work there.
MERRITT: A lot of them are worried about their careers, you know, if they would say something. I think most of them have been told not to say a word.
BURNETT: For its part, CBP concedes it's not easy to protect wildlife while strengthening border security. Carmen Qualia is an assistant chief with the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley.
CARMEN QUALIA: Can we design it so that it is not as impactful to develop, like, a passage corridor? I'll be honest that those are some challenges that are happening across the whole entire southwest border where we're putting in wall.
BURNETT: What's more, Trump's border wall dwarfs Bush's border fence. The current wall is nearly twice as high - 30 feet, taller than a two-story house. Floodlights will be on all night long, and an enforcement zone on the south side of the wall will extend out 150 feet. To put that in perspective, 150 feet is the width of a six-lane highway. To build it, Homeland Security has suspended 31 federal laws that protect environmental and cultural features.
CAROLINE BROUWER: It's a tragic situation.
BURNETT: Caroline Brouwer is with the National Wildlife Refuge Association, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for the nation's often-overlooked refuge system.
BROUWER: Fish and Wildlife Service staff have worked on this issue for decades and decades, and it's being torn down in front of our eyes.
BURNETT: Congress has already attempted to protect the most important natural and cultural areas along the Rio Grande from the bulldozers and cranes and concrete trucks. They told CBP it could not build the wall in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the National Butterfly Center or Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, among other places. But those are just the crown jewels. Conservationists say all of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge has to be intact for the corridor to be viable.
I spoke to Representative Henry Cuellar. He's the Democrat from Laredo who inserted language in the appropriations bill to save those premier natural areas. While we did the interview, Cuellar said he was looking at a map of the extensive refuge system, the string of pearls. I asked him if he was prepared to carve out more of it for protection.
HENRY CUELLAR: That certainly is a concern, and this will be something that I will work to try to protect, absolutely.
BURNETT: Time is of the essence. Wall contractors are already pouring concrete and erecting the tall steel bollards down in the Rio Grande Valley.
John Burnett, NPR News, Brownsville.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN HOWL'S "MELT")
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