Border Patrol Obstruction Continues: Defenders Sues U.S. Border Patrol For Withholding Public Information

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(12/22/1998) - WASHINGTON, D.C. - Defenders of Wildlife announced today that it is suing the U.S. Border Patrol for failing to release public information about endangered species that inhabit the border region of southern Arizona. In particular, Defenders believes that Border Patrol activities along the U.S. - Mexico border are harming the critically endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope. The suit asserts that along U.S. borders, the Border Patrol is acting in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Freedom of Information Act.

"The Sonoran pronghorn is a highly imperiled species that does not receive the federal protection it deserves," says Defenders Legal Director Bill Snape. "Having access to vital information about Border Patrol activities and the effects on pronghorn populations is an important first step in recovering the species."

Approximately 120 Sonoran pronghorn survive in the United States, and the population has been in steady decline. Only two small groups of the Sonoran pronghorn remain in the world, one in southern Arizona and the other in Sonora, Mexico. Although the Sonoran pronghorn has been listed as endangered for more than 30 years, recovery has been difficult, and scientists believe that extinction is a very real possibility.

In the Arizona Sonoran Desert, Border Patrol activities occur within the Barry M. Goldwater Range, Cabeza Prieta National Refuge and Wilderness, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and Tohono O'odham Nation of Arizona. Defenders charges that in these areas, Border Patrol staff fly excessively loud helicopters extremely low, less than 200 feet above ground, directly over Sonoran pronghorn habitat. Scientific literature documents that loud noise can trigger a flight response in ungulates. Such responses are believed to cause stress, panic, and bodily injury to pronghorns while displacing them from their feeding, drinking, fawning, and bedding areas. This can impair reproduction and cause increased mortality rates for the species.

Defenders filed a notice to sue the Border Patrol for the same violations of the ESA in 1996. In response, Border Patrol officials assured Defenders that they would commence with the required processes under the ESA to ensure the safety and survival of the pronghorn. However, neither the Border Patrol nor the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have released any ESA documents authorizing Border Patrol activities in this area.

"Instead of cooperating with the other federal agencies and sharing public information, the Border Patrol has simply ignored Freedom of Information Act requests," says Defenders biologist Dr. Melissa Grigione. "The agency's disregard for the legal process is mirrored by their apparent disdain for environmental compliance."

Defenders has been trying for more than five months to obtain documentation that describes how the Border Patrol is affecting the Sonoran pronghorn and other endangered and threatened species in the region.

Defenders has concerns about other Border Patrol actions that are proceeding without proper legal process. Among these concerns is the Border Patrol practice of maintaining 75 miles of "drag roads" in pronghorn habitat. A "drag road" is a sandy, dusty border road that has been smoothed over, using heavy trucks, to try and make footprints visible. This activity not only creates a daily, heavy human presence, but also leads to erosion, vegetation damage, and destruction of historic sites.

Defenders is also concerned with a giant border construction project recently undertaken by the Border Patrol along the Texas border. Defenders charges that the construction will destroy much of the only remaining ocelot and jaguarundi habitat in the United States. The Texas project, which includes land clearing, use of spotlights, and construction of barriers, has not completed the required environmental review process. Yet the Border Patrol has already begun construction.

"This border project might not only destroy habitat, it could actually result in the death of the last ocelots in America," says Snape. "We are just asking that the Border Patrol follow the law, like every other federal agency is required to."

"We want the Border Patrol to adhere to federal guidelines when making decisions, and we want the agency to make the basis for their decisions public, as required by law," concludes Snape. "It's imperative that the agency takes into account all of the effects of their activities and that they justify their decisions so that we can work together to ensure the continued survival of these critically endangered creatures."

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Contact(s):

Ken Goldman, 202-682-9400 x221 (Media)
Chandra Rosenthal, 202-682-9400 x225 (Legal)

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Sonoran Pronghorn,  © Mark Milburn
In the Magazine
With an oblong face and a black nose splotch, the Sonoran pronghorn stands out against the cacti-strewn landscape of the American Southwest.