President Donald Trump is expected to sign a deal this week funding 55 miles of his border wall. The new barriers won’t meet his goal of sealing off the country’s southern border. But they will smash through an American butterfly sanctuary, whose leaders are suing the government.
Trump’s xenophobic presidential campaign cast the southern border as an imminent threat, with immigrants bringing crime and corrosion. But his proposed wall across the U.S.-Mexico border is violating constitutional rights and destroying a treasured wildlife institution, the North American Butterfly Association said in a petition for a temporary restraining order, filed on behalf of the National Butterfly Center on Monday. The center, which currently stands in Mission, Texas, will have its land cut through by the wall. And even before the wall’s construction, feds are allegedly trampling the center’s grounds, ripping out plants, harassing staff, and installing hidden surveillance cameras.
The National Butterfly Center is a 100-acre property in the Rio Grande Valley, “one of the most biologically diverse areas in North America,” Marianna Wright, the center’s executive director told The Daily Beast. A hotbed for birds and rare plants, the wildlife preserve hosts thousands of school children every year.
“Many have never been any place like this,” Wright said. “We had one little boy who kept saying over and over, ‘I’ve never seen so much nature in my life.’”
That nature is in jeopardy. The center’s current location is firmly in Texas. But the wall is planned for two miles north of the border, leaving some of the butterfly sanctuary on the opposite side of steel slats. And federal employees and contractors began interfering with the site in July 2017, without consulting the center; Wright said she became aware of the project when she found government contractors cutting down trees and brush, and widening a road on the property.
“This has been going on for years,” she said. “It’s been escalating. It’s almost like Border Patrol tries something, and if nobody pushes back, they try something new, or they get a grant or a new public partner. The Department of Public Safety in Texas apparently got the grant for all these video cameras. Then of course we had the deployment of the National Guard, which brought in the raid towers and the audio surveillance. It’s been a matter of them pushing the envelope.”
The preliminary work has already damaged the delicate ecosystem. Wright described Border Patrol agents stringing chains of old car tires to the back of vehicles and dragging them around the area, churning up constant dust that disrupts wildlife.
“They claim the tire-dragging is absolutely fundamental to their ability to detect and apprehend people who may be crossing into the country illegally,” she said. “They drag the tires around, and if they find new footprints in the dirt, then they know someone has passed through. After the fact, then they can look for them or call in the helicopters to search for people who may have already passed through.”
The maneuver is a modern take on a hunting technique pioneered by the indigenous people who used to live in the area, and who are still buried in the Rio Grande Valley. Border Patrol “say this tactic, which was used by native people for centuries to track wildlife, is their very best tool in detecting humans,” Wright said.
The center filed suit against the government in December 2017, to little result. Their petition for a restraining order this week reflects an escalating situation.
“During the past week, Defendants have transported heavy machinery to be used in the construction of the wall onto tracts adjoining the Butterfly Center, driven their trucks and heavy machinery back and forth across the Butterfly Center as if they own it, and blocked access to more than two-thirds of the Butterfly Center with law enforcement vehicles and by cutting the Butterfly Center’s lock on one of its gates and replacing it with one of their own,” the filing reads. It also accuses government employees of installing surveillance cameras on the site.
The wall construction comes as researchers report a shocking drop in insect populations globally. A recently released study found a 2.5 percent annual decrease in insects over the past 25 to 30 years. “It is very rapid,” researcher Francisco Sánchez-Bayo told The Guardian. “In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none.”
Among those losses are dramatic drops in the world’s butterfly populations. The U.K. reported a 58 percent drop in butterflies on farmed land from 2000 to 2009. Previous research found a 97 percent drop in the Monarch butterflies that spend their winters in California since the 1980s. The Monarchs’ disappearance has accelerated in recent years, largely due to climate change, researchers said. Researchers also credited the mass die-offs to pesticide use.
A bug-less future could be a hungry future. Insects pollinate most plant species, and form a critical link in the food chain. It’s also a preventable future, with the right ecological intervention, experts say. The Rio Grande Valley, where animals can still wander across human borders and rare plants form an oasis for unique butterfly species, can be a model of conservation done right.
“It’s magical,” Wright said of the Butterfly Center. “That’s why we show up for work every day. We aren’t fearful of any invasion or any crisis.”