McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A pledge by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to use state resources to light up the border region as part of sweeping new border security measures due to the end of Title 42 is angering environmentalists who worry about light pollution on wildlife, especially in the Rio Grande Valley.
“The border region is going to be lit during night in prominent smuggling areas to make it far easier to detect any activity that is taking place,” Abbott said during a news conference Wednesday in Weslaco, Texas, where he outlined several new border security plans.
Plans include putting up razor wire and boat blockades in the Rio Grande, inspecting commercial trucks from Mexico, busing migrants to Washington, D.C., and outfitting Texas National Guard troops with riot gear.
It’s unclear where or how Abbott plans to light up the border, especially when the majority of borderlands in Texas are privately owned.
But Abbott’s announcement comes as conservation groups are asking all Texans, especially those along the Rio Grande Valley border, to dim their lights overnight to help birds during spring migration season.
The Lights Out for Wildlife campaign runs through May and is important to help millions of birds that fly at night and are currently migrating north, Texas Conservation Alliance Executive Director Ben Jones recently told Border Report.
“Birds migrate every spring and fall and this is a campaign we push to get our night sky as dark as dark as possible for migrating birds,” Jones said.
More than 70% of all birds migrate at night, Jones said.
Light pollution can confuse birds, which navigate by using stars, memory and geomagnetic forces, wildlife experts say.
Excessive artificial light in the South Texas border region of the Rio Grande Valley is especially concerning to environmentalists who say millions of birds are funneled into this area as they make their way along the Gulf Coast en route to and from Central and South America.
The South Texas border is “a major very important area for migrating birds,” Jones said. “It’s like a superhighway for migrating birds so taking action to limit lights is not only important for your area, or the state of Texas, but for entire populations of birds.”
Some birds travel thousands of miles from Alaska and the Arctic, said David Newstead, director of the Coastal Bird Program for Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program based in Corpus Christi, Texas.
“Lights can be disorienting and attracting and can confuse birds as to where they’re supposed to be headed and also drawn into light,” Newstead recently told Border Report.
“Floodlights cause tremendous disruption to nocturnal wildlife. Some are attracted to the lights, others avoid them. Wildlife that is adapted to dark nights do not know what to do when humans light up the dark,” Scott Nicol, an environmentalist from McAllen, Texas, told Border Report Friday.
This could hurt endangered ocelots, and bats, which are nocturnal.
Nicol called Abbott’s recent border security plans “an election-year political stunt.”
“Abbott is pretending that he is going to seal off the border but the state doesn’t own much of that land so they can’t do anything on it without the owners giving their OK. Same as his busing announcement that he’ll bus everyone to D.C. The migrants must volunteer to go,” Nicol said.
Abbott, a Republican, is running for his third term to lead the Lone Star State.
There are some state-owned land tracts along the border, like Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, where Abbott can put up and do whatever he wants with state resources.
But Jim Chapman, vice president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, worries that the park is near a federal wildlife refuge land tract, and lights in such close proximity would affect wildlife at the refuge.
Roughly one-third of riverfront borderlands in the Rio Grande Valley is designated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as a wildlife refuge, said Chapman, whose nonprofit works to safeguard and protect these refuge areas.
“The consequences for wildlife are almost all bad. There’s already lighting in a lot of areas along the wall,” Chapman told Border Report on Friday.
Chapman points out that many sections of the 400-mile-long border wall built during the Trump administration have lights that disrupt the habitat of nocturnal animals and species. Adding more lights would make it worse, he said.
“Unfortunately, with the border wall, they had a waiver so they didn’t have to look at the environmental impacts but Gov. Abbott doesn’t have a waiver. If he’s serious about lighting up the border there’s going to have to be some kind of environmental review,” Chapman said.
When an area is lighted, it can drive insects to it in heavy numbers, lowering the number of insects for animals to feed on elsewhere. It also can disrupt their sleep and roaming patterns, Chapman says.
“There’s a lot of nocturnal species that need darkness and when they don’t have darkness they abandon that area. So you basically start eliminating habitat for nocturnal species,” Chapman said.
Chapman said he also thinks Abbott’s recent announcements were political theater.
“It makes me wonder if he’s just blowing smoke. What authority does he have to land not owned by the state?” Chapman said.
But Abbott has already proven to be serious in fulfilling some of his new border security plans.
On Thursday, at least 100 troops began “mass migration rehearsals,” south of Mission, Texas, on the banks of the Rio Grande just outside of Anzalduas Park.
Similar exercises also are to be held in Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Laredo and Zapata, Texas, Abbott said.