Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife sue USFWS

An ocelot in an unknown location. Creative Commons.

Biological opinions on LNG export plants in question

By Gaige Davila

The Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife environmentalist groups filed lawsuits challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) biological opinions and incidental take statements granted to Houston, Texas, based Annova LNG and Rio Grande LNG, owned by NextDecade. The two liquefied natural gas plants are planned for construction in the Port of Brownsville. 

The lawsuits, filed on April 14 and April 20, say the plants’ construction potentially threatens the endangered ocelot and Gulf coast jaguarundi populations adjacent to the Port of Brownsville.

The USFWS said, in their biological opinion, filed on October 2, 2019, that the export plant projects would “not likely jeopardize” the populations of the two wildcat species. USFWS acknowledges in their biological opinion that both of the wildcats’ habitat would experience “loss,” adding “one ocelot or jaguarundi may be harmed from the construction” for the 30-year life of the projects, the incidental take statements read.

Of the around 60 ocelots in the United States, around 12 are in Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (LANWR). A second population of ocelots are in Willacy County in private ranch lands. There are between 800,000 to 1.5 million ocelots in Mexico, Central and South America.

The Rio Grande LNG and Annova LNG export plant facilities would occupy more than 1,300 acres within the South Texas Ocelot Coastal Corridor, eliminating key habitat and cutting off the ocelot population in the LANWR from ocelots in Mexico, the lawsuit states. The lawsuit also states the export plant’s building would also put ocelots at increased risk of being struck and killed by traffic. According to the USFWS, nearly half of the ocelots studied around the LANWR since 1983 have died from being struck by cars. 

“Allowing these fracked gas facilities to be built would have a devastating impact on the local environment and put the ocelot at grave risk of extinction,” said Sierra Club Managing Attorney Eric Huber, in a press release. “The Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to greenlight the Annova and Rio Grande LNG facilities violates the Endangered Species Act and runs counter to the agency’s mission to protect wildlife and natural habitats.”

“We know the gas export terminals, including the massive Annova and Rio Grande facilities, will have lasting impacts on the ocelot and their habitat,” said Defenders of Wildlife Texas Representative Dr. Sharon Wilcox, Ph.D., in a press release “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s own scientific findings don’t support the approval of these terminals. This decision is wrong, and we will continue to fight it in court.”

Annova LNG spokesperson Beth Archer said Annova LNG has worked with USFWS to “develop conservation measures,” saying the company has saved 1,000 acres of ocelot habitat, adding 250 more acres of habitat within the South Texas Ocelot Corridor in the future.

Archer said Annova LNG changed the export plant’s layout, creating a 185-acre space on the west side of the site for a wildlife corridor. 

Wildlife corridors are used to allow wildlife to cross roads or avoid human-made structures, such as the path constructed under a segment of SH 100 between Laguna Vista and Los Fresnos, where, before the corridors were built in 2016, five ocelots were killed by cars.

Archer also said that a barrier wall would be installed around the southwest edge of the export plant site between the terminal facilities and the wildlife corridor to “reduce light and noise impacts on wildlife.”  

Wilcox says Annova LNG’s site, compounded with the Rio Grande LNG export plant, which would be south of the LANWR, would increase lights, noise, traffic, facility structures and more ocelots being hit by cars in the area.

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy photo.

“Given how very small the ocelot population is at Laguna Atascosa, it simply cannot sustain loss of individual cats to preventable harms like those anticipated,” Wilcox said in an email to the PRESS. 

Annova LNG, through Blanton & Associates environmental consultants, commissioned a camera trapping study from January 2016 to January 2017 in the export plant site area and in a 15-mile radius around the site, the Houston Chronicle reported in 2019. Though several native wildlife were captured from the 125 cameras placed, none of the 93 images were of ocelots or Gulf coast jaguarundi. 

The last time an ocelot was seen in the Port of Brownsville was in 1998, within 2 miles of the Annova LNG and Rio Grande LNG site areas. That ocelot, a young male, was trapped and tracked by Blanton & Associates biologists, where they last recorded the wildcat traveling 8 miles north towards the LANWR. 

On April 21, 1986, a jaguarundi was killed by a car east of Brownsville, on SH 4 near FM 511, being the last time the wildcat was physically documented in Texas. Sightings continued until 2004, when a LANWR biologist spotted two jaguarundi north of the entrance road of the refuge. 

But Wilcox says the area, as acknowledged by USFWS’ biological opinion, is still habitat for ocelots and jaguarundi, which they use to travel to and from Mexico, where a much larger population exists.

“This connection is necessary for ocelot survival and recovery, but the facility would effectively block the corridor with a huge industrial facility,” Wilcox said. 

The USFWS acknowledges several times in their biological opinions of the Annova LNG and Rio Grande LNG export plants that ocelot and jaguarundi habitats would be “adversely” impacted by their construction. Specifically, the projects would impact their movement, foraging behavior and fragment their habitats.

In the biological opinion, the USFWS writes that 262.4 acres of “preferred ocelot habitat” would be destroyed. 189.1 acres of “suitable habitat” would be lost within the site’s boundaries, with another 73.3 acres lost during the Rio Bravo Pipeline’s construction. 

The USFWS anticipates both projects may incidentally harm or “take” an ocelot or jaguarundi during their 30-year lifespans, but they do not believe they would “impact the “continued existence” of the wildcat species. 

NextDecade spokesperson Ashley Helmer declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the company does not comment on on-going litigation. 

The PRESS has contacted LANWR for comment.

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