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Is Wall Construction at the National Butterfly Center About to Begin?

Rumors are swirling that the government plans to seize the majority of the private sanctuary’s land today. Center staff themselves don’t know for sure.

On Sunday, the National Butterfly Center alerted Facebook users to some alarming news: Earlier that day, construction equipment and eight local law enforcement units materialized at the 100-acre sanctuary in Mission, Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Last year, Congress approved funding to build new border-wall sections atop a levee that runs through the center, which protects habitat for hundreds of butterfly species as well as birds and other wildlife. An officer told center staff that “effective Monday morning, [the center’s land south of the levee] is all government land,” according to the post, suggesting that plans to construct the new wall sections continue. (These wall plans are separate from President Trump's larger proposed wall project that is still being negotiated.) 

If construction is imminent, the staff of the National Butterfly Center have not been informed. Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the center, confirmed to Audubon that heavy yellow machinery—an excavator, specifically—appeared on the property on Sunday. He also says that there is a heightened presence of local Mission police, who express the view that this is a land seizure. But no one has contacted the center to let them know one way or the other.

“I cannot definitely say that that is untrue,” that land seizure for wall construction is imminent, Glassberg told Audubon on Monday. “I also don’t have information to say that it is true.”

Glassberg says that the normal process for government land seizure has been in progress. Once notified, the landowner meets with an appraiser, and the government makes an offer for purchase. The parties then negotiate.

Glassberg has a meeting scheduled for today with a government appraiser, a meeting that’s been on the books for weeks. “That doesn’t mean that someone on a different track isn’t going to seize the land today,” he says—meaning an agent (or agency) outside of that ongoing process. “But no one has communicated that to us.”

When completed, the wall will bisect the National Butterfly Center, a privately owned preserve, leaving 70 of its 100 acres south of the wall; yesterday, a police officer told center staff that they would no longer be able to access their land south of the levee. At nearby Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, which is part of the Rio Grande Valley's World Birding Center, famed for its 500-plus bird species, nearly all of its 797 acres would also wind up south of the wall. The park land was sold to the state for $1 in 1944 under the requirement that it be used “solely for public park purposes;” the wall’s presence could break that requirement, forcing the state to turn the land back to the benefactors, the family of the late Democratic U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen, and close the park.

The parks along the Rio Grande River protect unique ecosystems formed where wetlands meet grasslands meet rare thorn forests and aridlands. The variety of habitats support a vast diversity of birds and other wildlife; this region is among the only places in the United States where subtropical and tropical birds range. At an Audubon Christmas Bird Count in Bentsen State Park last month, birders counted more than 150 species on a single winter's day.

To build the 30-foot wall, the Department of Homeland Security will bulldoze a 150-foot “enforcement zone” along its edge, land that today is wildlife habitat. Bright lights will blaze all night long despite the known hazard to birds, which navigate by starlight and are easily disoriented by lights left on at night. The area is home to dozens of endangered animals, which congregate around the Rio Grande River in an otherwise arid landscape.

Audubon will update this story as new information becomes available.

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