April 4, 2020
The Ecological Cost of the Trump Border Wall
“We don’t even have a species list… We don’t know what will happen to these populations when they’re cut in half.”
The view looking east towards Douglas, Arizona from Montezuma Pass. Coronado Memorial is visible below the pass and the distant border wall under the clouds. Photo courtesy of Sky Island AllianceSource: Sky Island Alliance
The “world’s most costly” border wall has a projected budget that extends beyond its dollar amount: the environmental and ecological costs.
If the Trump administration pursues a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, “there are species that will be completely extirpated from the United States,” said Sky Island Alliance program director Emily Burns during our recent interview.
Not to mention, the cement needed to create the border wall will require draining “hundreds of thousands of gallons of water that’s very precious down here in the southwest” from sensitive, local sources, she added.
Due to the environmental laws that have been waived to continue with the construction of the border wall, there’s no data that tells us how many species live within the region or how they could be impacted.
We spoke with Burns yesterday to learn more about the ecosystem in the U.S.-Mexico border region and learn more about the study.
Tell us a little about Sky Island Alliance and the study of wildlife diversity at the border wall.
Sky Island Alliance was started in 1991, so it’s almost 30-years-old. It’s an organization that’s dedicated to protecting and restoring the life and land in the Sky Island region.
This is a very special part of North America, at the crossroads of northern Mexico and southern Arizona, where we have these large mountain chains that are separated from other mountains by grasslands and deserts.
The Border Wildlife Study transverses the Patagonia and Huachuca Mountains in Southern Arizona, an area of border only marked with barbed wire and vehicle barrier today but where border wall construction is planned. Map courtesy of Sky Island AllianceSource: Sky Island Alliance
That’s what the island comes from, the idea of these elevated forests that are sitting up higher than the desert, which create these unique habitats that are cooler and support a diversity of life.
They say that driving from the desert up to the top one of the sky islands is like the climatic gradient of driving from Mexico to Canada, so there’s all these amazing places for a multitude of species to live.
Where the border wall is being built and crossing through these sky islands in southern Arizona is going to be cutting off the migration routes for these animals that are typically moving between Mexico and the United States – island hopping, if you will – going between these mountaintop habitats.
That’s what we’re so concerned about.
What inspired you to become involved with the study?
It became very real for me when I actually traveled down to the Patagonia mountains – those are the mountains that are just south of Tucson and cross the border.
I was out there with one of my colleagues looking for signs of which animal species were living down there, exploring to figure out what sort of conservation strategies were needed at this time of crisis.
It became clear to me in a very tangible way that there were so many animal species all around the border fence.
Where we were, the border was only marked by a barbed-wire fence and some steel vehicle barrier, which is something that animals can still kind of lumber and crawl through.
A barbed-wire fence and steel vehicle barrier mark the border through the grasslands of the San Rafael Valley. Photo courtesy of Sky Island AllianceSource: Sky Island Alliance
We saw footprints and tracks of 33 different kinds of species just during one hike along the border, including paw prints of bears going under the barbed-wire fence, white-nosed coati going under the barbed-wire fence.
It was a really powerful moment for me. It made me realize we need to document these migration routes and make it very real for everyone what’s at risk here if the border wall cuts through these mountains.
With the entire world focused on the coronavirus pandemic, we aren’t hearing very much about the U.S.-Mexico Border Wall from national news outlets. What’s currently going on at the border wall? Is there still construction taking place, despite social distancing efforts?
Unfortunately, yes. Construction continues in southern Arizona and other states.
I just read yesterday that more military troops will be coming down to assist. So they’re bringing more people down to the border as border wall construction continues.
There hasn’t been a lot of attention given to what’s happening here at the border in the news media, and certainly during this time with coronavirus, we’re thinking about our families, our communities.
While I shelter at home with my family, I can’t help but think about the other components of my community that I want to keep healthy. It’s our neighbors that are living at the border. There are many towns and private ranches that are going to be affected by border wall construction.
And then, the toll it’s going to take on the wildlife species. Wildlife species that range through North America. These are animals that come to different states throughout the United States, but sometimes their journeys start down in Mexico.
The Trump Administration has waived a number of laws in order to pursue the border wall, as it states in your press release. What do some of those laws include and what is their role in protecting the environment in the U.S.-Mexico border region?
So many environmental and other laws have been waived.
The environmental laws called “NEPA,” the National Environmental Policy Act, states there must be a thorough environmental study, review, and consideration of mitigation before federal construction projects happen.
Without that happening, it means the federal government is not doing any documentation of what species live in the area that’ll be impacted by the border wall.
That is a huge problem and that’s why we’re motivated to do our research, to begin to fill that huge information gap. Get the information out to the public about what’s at stake here and use the data to help design whatever protection strategies we can in the short and long term to make sure these species can thrive, despite this massive crisis.
What are some of the top-most environmental concerns that are being overlooked by the construction of the border wall? Although the data isn’t there yet, how negatively could the wildlife be impacted by the construction?
I can give you a few examples. There are species that will be completely extirpated from the United States because the source population of species like Jaguar are in Mexico.
Jaguar used to live more extensively up into Arizona, they used to be in the Grand Canyon. As their populations have dwindled in Arizona, now Jaguars wander up from Sonora[, Mexico] and get into the United States.
When the border wall closes off that migration route, they will not be able to come in.
Pygmy owls are known to not fly over stretches of existing border wall, so their populations will be completely severed.
The border wall is also going to have impacts that lots of people don’t think about. There’s so much cement that’s going to be created to build the wall that local water is going to be trained out of really sensitive wetlands and riparian habitats to make the cement.
We’re talking hundreds of thousands of gallons of water that’s very precious down here in the southwest, and that’s going to have impacts on numerous species – from butterflies and bees to endangered freshwater fish.
It is. I consider myself an optimist, so I think about the devastation that’s happening and seems like it’s going to be continuing, but I like to think that humanity ultimately is going to do the right thing, once they know about these regions and issues, to stand up and call for border wall construction to stop.
I hope in my lifetime the wall will be torn down.
Giving your best, educated guess, how many species do you think the wildlife cameras could detect over a period of weeks or months?
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Today we are announcing the launch today of an unprecedented border wildlife study to document the diversity of wildlife under threat at the U.S.-Mexico border. Our goal is to document and ultimately advocate for the incredibly diverse wildlife that rely on this corridor for migration, food, habitat, and more. We are partnering with Mexican nonprofit Naturalia and American nonprofit Patagonia Area Resource Alliance to create a wildlife camera array along 34 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border in Southern Arizona and Northern Sonora, Mexico. You can learn more about the study including how you can support our efforts on our dedicated border study site https://skyislandalliance.org/our-work/wildlife-program/border-wildlife-study/
During the first week of the study, we recorded 11,000 animal photos.
That rate is incredibly high. We’ve got our work ahead of us to get through the analysis as these cameras continue to click away and record pictures.
So with the birds that are getting picked up by our cameras, and already large mammals, I think that we might have hundreds of species if this study can continue and we can keep these cameras going overtime.
How long will your wildlife cameras be surveilling the area?
I hope they will be continuing for months to years.
We know that it can take up to two years to document a majority of the large vertebrate diversity with wildlife cameras like this.
For me, what we really want to do is get as much of a baseline as we can before any construction happens so we know what the intact wildlife community is today.
The study will morph and begin asking new questions if and when border wall construction starts, and we will begin to measure the impact of the wall.
The longer we can collect the data, the better it is. We’re going to do everything in our power to have this study funded and to be able to manage it on our end.
Does Sky Island Alliance intend on setting up additional cameras along other parts of the U.S.-Mexico border region in the future?
We’re starting with the Patagonia and Huachuca mountain ranges, which are two of the mountain ranges that cross the border.
We’re partnering with a Mexican conservation non-profit called Naturalia and they have cameras directly across the border in the southern end of the Huachuca mountain ranges, so we can actually be mirroring the study on the Mexico side.
We hope to put more cameras out there as soon as the border is able to facilitate travel again.
The methods we’re using are something we’re very interested in sharing. We’d love to have other land managers and other groups be able to replicate our effort in other parts of the borderlands so that we can have more coverage with this camera array.
That’s my hope for the future, that more and more cameras will go out, more people will get involved, and we can tell this story about even more species in other places.
After collecting the wildlife data, how do you plan on distributing it to other researchers and government officials?
Our goal is going to be to share updates as frequently as we can: sharing the route data, providing insight into the patterns that we’re seeing, updating our species list.
We’ll be providing frequent updates. We’re really excited to share the news of all the new species we see every time we get data in.
We’ll be writing up the data into scientific publications, and to the best of our ability, getting the documentation of where the key migratory routes are into the hands of the decision makers in hopes that they will help us protect these critical places.
If the Trump Administration remains adamant about constructing the border wall despite its negative environmental impact, what else could be done to help protect the species that will be affected?
That is the big question of the today because this is an unprecedented ecological, social, evolutionary experiment that hasn’t been done before.
We do know these animal species are already facing other stressors and threats in this era of climate change, other types of habitat fragmentation, so this is another assault on these species that already have threats of less water, higher temperatures, more invasive species, there are more roads and highways cutting through their habitats.
It’s going to be a combination of stressors that are going to affect each species individually. We need to put a tremendous amount of scientific attention into understanding what these impacts are and anything we can do to alleviate this stress.
How can our readers get involved in helping the cause?
“Collared Peccaries, greeting each other by rubbing their send on one another. Video taken in Southern Arizona by a wildlife camera”Source: You’ll Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch Yours | Sky Island Alliance
We would love people to spread the word to help make it real what actually is happening down here at the border.
I think some people think, “Oh the border’s just a dusty old road,” – y’know, with tumbleweeds going across it. But these are actually lush, vibrant forests filled with grasslands and animals.
Help us tell that story. If people have the means, we would love support to maintain our cameras. People can sponsor wildlife cameras and get regular updates directly from us about what species we’re finding on cameras they’re sponsoring.
Do you have any additional comments or final thoughts to share?
The border passes through this quiet oak woodland in the valley below peaks of the Patagonia Mountains. Photo courtesy of Sky Island AllianceSource: Sky Island Alliance
I hope that everyone will have a chance to visit the Sky Islands and see this remarkable place at some point in their life. It surprised me when I came here for the first time and we’d love to share it with you.
Visit Sky Island Alliance’s website to learn more about the organization, their study, and learn how you can help the cause!
Be sure to follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube to keep up with their wildlife updates.
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