EL PASO, Texas, Feb. 14 (UPI) -- Wildlife, butterflies and a historic church could win a last-minute reprieve against imminent border wall construction if Congress passes, and President Donald Trump signs, the bipartisan spending bill circulated Thursday.
The bill includes a section prohibiting "construction of pedestrian fencing" in the Santa Ana and Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuges, Bentsen State Park, the La Lomita Historical Park and the National Butterfly Center.
In these locales, areas of native habitat would be destroyed because of border wall construction.
Last year, Congress authorized funding for construction of 18-foot-high bollards on the Rio Grande levee system in South Texas. U.S. Customs and Border Protection fence designs include a 150-foot enforcement zone, access roads and floodlighting.
Conservationists said all of these would harm the habitat and destroy wildlife. The border wall construction also threatens nature tourism in South Texas.
To fulfill this border barrier construction already authorized by Congress, Department of Homeland Security contractors last week began moving heavy machinery onto federal property adjacent to the National Butterfly Center. Also in danger is Bentsen State Park, home to the World Birding Center. Texas is the top birding destination in the United States, partly because of the unique habitat in the lower Rio Grande Valley.
Border fence construction threatens public and private landowners. The National Butterfly Center is owned by the North American Butterfly Association, while Bentsen State Park is owned by the state. The Catholic Diocese of Brownsville owns the La Lomita Historical Park.
The diocese also opposes border wall construction and last week lost a legal attempt to prevent government surveyors accessing its property.
The butterfly center's battle intensified at the beginning of this week when its lawyers asked a federal judge for an injunction to stop border fence construction on its property. The lawyers are seeking the court to protect the center's constitutional rights to private property and against unreasonable seizure.
"The wall and its attendant enforcement zone and road will destroy the delicate ecosystems upon which the butterfly center's existence is based," its lawyers argued in court papers.
They contended wall construction would "isolate and render useless 70% of NABA's land, irreparably harming its ability to carry out its mission of the observation and conservation of butterflies and other species native to the Rio Grande Valley, thus threatening the National Butterfly Center's very existence."
Environmentalists say stopping border wall construction is a matter of life and death for animals living in the unique habitat of the Tamaulipan thornscrub forest.
The Trump administration has suspended 28 environmental protection laws to build the border wall in South Texas. The habitat threatened by construction sustains rare and endangered species with exotic names: the Slender rush pea, the Tamaulipan kidneypetal, Walker's manioc, the ocelot, the Texas tortoise, the Texas horned lizard and the Texas indigo snake.
The butterfly center's request for an injunction said the government has been "engaged in harassment of butterfly center staff and visitors" since 2017. Government activity in the area slated for construction became more intense over the past week.
Earthmovers appeared and law enforcement vehicles blocked the center's land. Even its gate locks were cut by Customs and Border Protection, who replaced them with their own, the lawyers say.
Even as Congress deliberates over the bipartisan building, the contractors appeared ready to continue their construction efforts.
On Thursday, wildlife photographer Krista Schlyer posted on Facebook that contractors have already started clearing vegetation in the La Parida tract of the National Wildlife Refuge.
However, the contractors may need to pull back and the motion for an injunction may be unnecessary.
If the bipartisan spending plan makes its way intact to the president's desk for his signature, the prohibition on border fence construction in the wildlife and historic areas is retroactive, meaning it voids last year's funding for border barrier construction in these areas in South Texas.
The bill grants U.S. Customs and Border Protection $1.38 billion "for for the construction of primary pedestrian fencing, including levee pedestrian fencing, in the Rio Grande Valley Sector."
Estimates suggest the money will fund 55 miles of additional border barriers in South Texas. Congress has explicitly authorized the government to request public comment about plans for border fence construction in five Texas cities: Roma, Rio Grande City, Escobares, La Grulla and Salineno.
Republican senators urged the president to sign the legislation to stave off another partial government shutdown.