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Internal Emails: Border Wall Construction Process Posed ‘Greatest Threat to Endangered Species’ in Region

Newly released emails from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) show that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has repeatedly rebuffed warnings from federal land managers that the ongoing construction of President Donald Trump’s border wall has become a “dire emergency” for endangered species in the American southwest. The emails, obtained by High Country News through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, specifically deal with the damage being wrought on the 3,200-acre San Bernadino National Wildlife Refuge as DHS pumps more than 70,000 gallons of water from an underground system of connected wells.

To expedite the construction process, DHS in 2018 waived 41 laws meant to protect the federal land’s air, water, and endangered wildlife, circumventing the National Environmental Policy Act leaving the USFWS officials essentially powerless to protect the region.

Emails from USFWS Refuge Manager Bill Radke, who has managed San Bernadino for more than two decades, show DHS repeatedly ignoring warnings from experts that have grown increasingly ominous over the last year. In an email to staff from October 2019, Radke wrote that “the threat of groundwater depletion” at the San Bernardino Refuge had gone from “concerning” to a “dire emergency,” according to the report.

Subsequent emails show USFWS officials asking DHS for a 5-mile buffer around the refuge that was ignored.

“I was disappointed today to see first-hand that DHS and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not abide by the (most recent) October 16, 2019, Fish and Wildlife Service request to minimize water withdrawal from the aquifer that supports all wetlands on San Bernardino NWR,” Radke wrote. “Instead contractors made plans to drill even closer to the refuge, drilling their second new well 480 feet east of (the refuge).”

A month later, Radke wrote to DHS again, warning officials that pond levels in the refuge were “dropping precipitously (as much as a foot already),” noting they had “never gone low during winter months – not ever.”

“I do not know what reaction to expect from DHS or (the Army Corps of Engineers) to our continuing requests for them to minimize or mitigate impacts to the refuge,” Radke continued, “but so far our requests have been consistently met with indifference.”

By December 2019, Radke was relegated to telling colleagues that that the depleting water levels caused by border wall construction posed “the current greatest threat to endangered species in the southwest region.”

Radke also said the refuge was forced to take “life support” actions by diverting water away from three of its reservoirs while scientists tried to pull endangered wildlife from the water. In an email to staffers, Radke said the measure was “like cutting off individual fingers in an attempt to save the hand.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Matt Dyman pushed back on the emails, telling High Country News that “DHS and CBP have and continue to coordinate weekly, and more frequently on an as needed basis, to answer questions concerning new border wall construction projects and to address environmental concerns from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

[image via Joe Raedle/Getty Images]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.