Paradise in limbo: Land condemnation for border wall threatens popular South Texas birding preserve

Border Report Tour

'Environmental jewel' draws visitors from 40 nations; might not reopen next season

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A world-renowned birding preserve outside the small South Texas town of Roma, has closed for the season, but whether it will reopen remains unclear.

The Salineño Wildlife Preserve preserve is the subject of a federal land condemnation lawsuit and could potentially be cut off by a border wall. A hearing on the lawsuit has been put on hold until August.

The caretakers for the Salineño Wildlife Preserve closed the area late last month, but because other land condemnation cases in the region have recently gone in the government’s favor, they told Border Report this week that they are uncertain whether the preserve will reopen next fall.

Lois Hughes eyes birds through binoculars on March 5, 2020, as her partner, Merle Ihne, a fellow volunteer at the Salineño Wildlife Preserve in remote Starr County, Texas, looks on. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

On Dec. 15, the federal government filed a lawsuit against the nonprofit Valley Land Fund Inc., which owns the Salineño Wildlife Preserve, trying to take .723 acres of its riverfront land on the Rio Grande for border wall construction, roads, vehicle barriers, security lighting, cameras, sensors “and related structures designed to help secure the United States/Mexico border,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed after the Valley Land Fund board of directors in mid-November reversed course and decided not to sell the wildlife preserve, despite the organization having already had earlier talks with the federal government. Their reversal came after much public outcry from birders in the Rio Grande Valley and throughout the country against the sale of this area, which attracts rare bird species not seen elsewhere.

At the time, the board posted a tweet that read: “We believe the best outcome will be achieved by rescinding any and all agreements with U.S. Government that we have regarding the Salineño Preserve and hold strong in the hopes that we will be able to preserve this land for future generations. We appreciate the outpouring of understanding and support our organization has received through this difficult process.”

An oriole bathes on Nov. 6, 2020, at the Salineño Wildlife Preserve in western Starr County, an area the federal government has filed to take over to build a border wall. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Lois Hughes, a volunteer caretaker with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who runs the wildlife preserve with her partner, at the time were elated at the news, and she told Border Report this week that hundreds of birders visited the popular preserve this past season, despite mask requirements due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

But the lawsuit remains pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in McAllen, and Hughes, 77, said that when she and her partner, Merle Ihne, 79, packed up and closed the facility at the end of March, they wondered if they will be able to return to their beloved “second home,” which they have run for 12 winter birding seasons.

Technically, the federal government already holds the title for the land, which they legally acquired when they filed the condemnation lawsuit in December, according to McAllen lawyer Victoria Guerra, a former board member of Valley Land Fund who is on the board of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, which opposes border wall construction through environmentally-sensitive areas in the Rio Grande Valley.

In January, the government deposited $10,398 for the riverfront borderland into the court’s registry. But Guerra says the government cannot take possession of the actual land until it is allowed to do so by a federal judge.

The case is pending under U.S. District Judge Randy Crane, who has overseen seen several land condemnation cases filed during the Trump administration, including a case against the private border wall near Mission, Texas.

On March 29, Crane issued a motion to stay condemnation proceedings after both the federal government and Valley Land Fund filed a motion requesting to pause the case, which has been reset for Aug. 4.

But Guerra said they aren’t taking it for granted that the case will be dismissed after a prominent family in Mission, Texas, last week lost a land condemnation case.

“Even though the Biden administration has said ‘not another foot’ there have been some condemnation proceedings occurring still,” Guerra told Border Report on Wednesday. “That’s an indication that some condemnations are still occurring and some portions of the border wall are still being built and those things concern me.”

Jeffrey Gordon, president of the nonprofit American Birding Association, said the region is a “spectacular” area for birding and his organization opposes the taking of any land that would hinder bird species or birders.

“One of the things that is so remarkable of that part of southern Texas it is kind of like a funnel, so you have Gulf Coast stuff and coastal stuff and desert all a phenomenon in this concentrated area, and the diversity of it is what makes the Rio Grande Valley so special,” Gordon told Border Report on Wednesday.

“The folks who live down there, they really have a front-row seat to an amazing spectacle throughout the year and Salineño is part of that and the Gulf Coast is part of that and we’re in favor of anything that keeps that all going that’s for sure,” he said.

The folks who live down there they really have a front-row seat to an amazing spectacle throughout the year and Salineño is part of that.”

Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association

The region is especially active with birds right now, after a cold snap last weekend caused thousands of birds who were migrating north to “fallout” or drop down on South Texas Gulf Coast communities. Gordon said most of the affected birds were those trying to make dangerous overnight trans-Gulf flights from the Yucatan Peninsula, in Mexico, to the Coastal Bend in Texas, or areas of Louisiana and northern Florida.

Hundreds of birders this week have flown into South Padre Island to view the birds and this rare phenomena, which occurs when they literally run out of energy and stop in coastal communities.

“If they encounter tough weather, winds blowing against them or a line of thunderstorms overnight they get exhausted. They’re on a very tight energy budget — a couple ounce bird trying to fly overnight and through the next day the entire Gulf of Mexico. There’s not much room for error and so when something happens, unfortunately, a lot of them drown in the Gulf, and the ones close enough to shore they will land on anything,” Gordon said.

The Salineño Wildlife Preserve is about 140 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, a bit out of the flight line for these birds, but still an area hugely popular among rare and not-often seen birds as they migrate back north in the months of April and May.

Hughes said since the preserve opened in 2008, it averages 2,300 visitors each winter season who have come from all 50 states and 39 foreign countries. She calls it an “environmental jewel.”

“There is very little native habitat left in the Rio Grande Valley with urban sprawl and agriculture continually encroaching. The wall has decimated outrageous amounts of it to the point that there is little left to sustain the wildlife that’s trying to call it home,” Hughes said.

Her wish, she said “is that the suit can be withdrawn” and for “the land returned to the people and the birds and wildlife who need it far more than a service road with 24/7 security lights.”

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