Steve Bannon's Nonprofit Sued for Destroying Wild Butterflies' Habitat with Donald Trump's Border Wall

Eight months before Steve Bannon was arrested on a yacht for his involvement in an alleged border wall fundraising scheme, a butterfly conservatory that neighbors that project filed a lawsuit claiming it posed flooding risks that could permanently damage surrounding properties.

Bannon and his We Build the Wall associates, who raised money for a privately-funded section of border wall through their nonprofit, allegedly "orchestrated a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors," according to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Bannon, who was arrested last August, was accused of using money that was donated to fund a private section of border wall for personal expenses. Bannon and his associates pleaded not guilty following their arrests.

Former President Donald Trump pardoned Bannon for his alleged activities with We Build the Wall before the criminal charges tied to the nonprofit could move forward.

We Build the Wall
Sediment is seen seeping into the Rio Grande River near the section of border wall funded by We Build the Wall. Photo courtesy of National Butterfly Center

While Bannon's associates await the outcome of the charges filed against them, the section of border wall they built with help from the Fisher Sand and Gravel construction company along the Rio Grande River near Mission, Texas, is already starting to show signs of significant erosion.

It's a serious concern for low-lying properties nearby, like the National Butterfly Center, as hurricane season approaches.

When flooding occurs, "we lose land, we lose the beneficial cover that is there. And it's replaced by invasive species that take from the natural environment without really providing any benefit at all," said Marianne Trevino Wright, the executive director of the National Butterfly Center.

"Loss of habitat=loss of resources to sustain wildlife," the center explained in a May 14 tweet. "The trickle down effect of this destructive act+the unnatural barrier to land used for species feeding & breeding will impact seed distribution, genetic diversity & ecological health in ways that degrade, rather than save."

Butterflies at National Butterfly Center
Butterflies at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. A lawsuit filed against Steve Bannon's nonprofit We Build the Wall alleges that erosion caused by the construction of the privately funded portion of Donald Trump's border wall threatens the 100-acre natural habitat maintained by the Center for butterflies and other species. nationalbutterflycenter.org

The National Butterfly Center features 100 acres on which several species of wild butterflies live, drink nectar and fly freely. Dragonflies and birds also roam the center, which offers species checklists so visitors can keep track of their sightings.

The center exists in a region that is prone to drought in dry conditions and flooding during the rainy season. Located just north of the Rio Grande River, the center is at risk of flooding when the river overflows, which Wright said is increasingly likely due to the soil erosion caused by the private section of border wall funded by Bannon's group.

Wright took pictures to document the soil erosion earlier this week, and told Newsweek she visited the wall again on Wednesday night. Wright said the roughly eight inches of rain that fell in the area over the last couple of weeks forced a majority of the center to close to visitors because the trails became too slippery with mud to traverse—and that's without any significant flooding.

When the National Butterfly Center first filed its lawsuit against We Build the Wall in December 2019, it raised concerns that its property would be "in immediate peril" if construction moved forward. The wall would "cause a redirection and build up of surface water during flooding events," according to the lawsuit.

"This redirection of surface water and the accompanying debris would cause permanent damage to the Plaintiff's property which cannot be remedied with any monetary sum," the lawsuit alleged.

Last fall, environmental engineer Mark Tompkins filed a report on behalf of National Butterfly Center that said soil erosion already visible at the foot of the wall, which was built along the edge of the Rio Grande River, made it possible the wall could "topple into the river" during flooding events, according to The Texas Tribune.

Alex Mayer, a civil engineering professor at University of Texas at El Paso, also raised concerns at the time about the location and quality of the construction work, which he told the Tribune seemed to be "cutting corners everywhere."

Border wall Steve Bannon
Divots photographed near the base of the border wall built by We Built the Wall show soil erosion already taking place. Photo courtesy of National Butterfly Center

"Allowing a private group to build a section of wall right on the river is just inconceivable," Mayer recently told Newsweek.

In 2010, Hurricane Alex caused significant flooding and damage at the National Butterfly Center. Wright recalled Hurricane Alex as an example of a recent extreme weather event that, if repeated, could test the stability of the wall, which she said is "more like a private security fence."

"When we have a major flood event like Hurricane Alex in 2010, that security fence will be completely submerged," Wright told Newsweek.

We Build the Wall initially launched in early 2019 with the goal of collecting donations to construct portions of border wall on private lands, as the 3-mile section at the center of the National Butterfly Center's lawsuit was. Bannon advocated for the construction of the border wall before and after his time serving as an adviser to Trump, who made building the wall one of his primary campaign promises ahead of his win in the 2016 presidential election.

Following Bannon's arrest last summer, members of Trump's administration worked to distance the president from Bannon's privately-funded project, with former White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany saying Trump had "always" believed the wall's construction should be handled by the government rather than by private groups.

The National Butterfly Center filed its complaint against We Build the Wall as a defamation lawsuit in response to comments the wall-building group's founder, Brian Kolfage, allegedly made.

Kolfage's allegations about the center being involved in "human-trafficking" and "drug smuggling" was part of a "plan to enrage parts of the populace so that Defendants WBTW and Kolfage can make a profit off the fears of Americans who are looking for victims to blame for what they believe is wrong with the world," according to the lawsuit.

But the National Butterfly Center's legal complaints extended beyond defamation and malice to address its concerns about possible environmental tolls—concerns the U.S. government raised in separate legal complaints regarding the privately-funded wall's potential violations of a treaty between the U.S. and Mexico that was designed to protect both countries from flooding.

The privately-funded project "would cause topographic and vegetative changes detrimental to the ecological values of the National Butterfly Center's land as well changes in erosion patterns that could effectively remove portions of the land and changes in deposition patterns that could effectively destroy portions of the land," the National Butterfly Center's lawsuit said.

According to Wright, those changes are already visible and pose serious threats to the surrounding areas. Meanwhile, the official June 1 start of hurricane season is just around the corner.

"They eliminated the mature compacted soil that was the riverbank and all of the vegetation, with roots that held it into place, and they replaced it with a sloped beach," Wright told Newsweek. "Where there was a vibrant ecosystem of predominantly native vegetation holding a riverbank in place, Fisher and his work crew eliminated everything."