Borderlands biodiversity in the age of Trump

By Owen Zerambo

Of President Trump’s many campaign promises, none were as grandiose as his proposition to construct a “big, beautiful” wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Such a wall, which would supersede the 700-some miles of fencing already along the border, would attempt to stop land based, illegal immigration from Mexico.

The United States-Mexico border.

Establishing such a barrier has the potential to disrupt borderlands wildlife, such as the Mexican gray wolf, the pronghorn antelope and the nearly extinct North American jaguar.

“It would basically divide the wildlife populations and shrink genetic diversity to more of an extreme,” said Sam Chambers, UA urban planning assistant research professor.

The wall could also lead to issues for non-walking border crossers, such as the vast diversity of birds that migrate from Mexico into southern Arizona during the summer.

Factors like lighting and noise along the wall could affect their overflight and disrupt their annual migration patterns.

Even if measures were taken to reduce the impact on local wildlife, the amount of environmental devastation caused by the construction and maintenance of the wall is expected to be vast.

“So you’ve got a large wall and a couple of wide roads on each side of it,” Chambers said. “Anything smaller is going to be impacted by that because it’s just acres upon acres of unusable space with an impervious surface.”

In the past, attempts have been made to integrate animal habitat and migration routes with man-made barriers, such as with the wildlife crossings on I-75 in south Florida. However, constructing barriers that are crossable by large mammals, such as jaguars, also tend to be easily crossable by humans as well.

Wildlife overpasses are used as a mitigation measure worldwide to reduce the mortality of wildlife on roads, and to a certain extent, to facilitate the genetic exchange of both flora and fauna species in forest fragments. This photo depicts a newly constructed wildlife overpass in highly urbanized Singapore, which connects two rainforest nature reserves that was separated by an eight-laned highway for close to 30 years. (Photo by Benjamin P. Y-H. Lee, University of Kent).

Because of the physical and political difficulties that would come with providing jaguar crossings, the Arizona Game and Fish Department have instead come to an alternate conclusion regarding the jaguar population.

“Our agency’s belief is that this region is not critical to the long-term survival of the jaguar,” said Mark Hart, public information officer for the Arizona Game and Fish Department in Tucson. “We believe [jaguar] conservation efforts should be focused in Mexico.”

Male jaguar photographed by automatic wildlife cameras in the Santa Rita Mountains on Sept. 11, 2013 as part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Department of Homeland Security-funded jaguar survey conducted by the UA. Jaguar presence in the U.S. could be disrupted by an impermeable border wall.

While few disagree that a border wall will have consequences on local wildlife, until actual specifications for the wall have been drawn up any guess of the potential harm that its construction may cause is currently speculation.

“It can’t be disputed that barriers, fences and roads limit the ability of wildlife to make use of all available habitat,” said Hart. “But that being said, we already know that illegal immigration impacts wildlife right now.”

The flow of human migration is similar to that of water. When presented with a barrier, immigrants simply find a way around it. Upon crossing the border through human smuggling operations, immigrants are taken to remote “layup spots” that are only accessible by primitive roads. In these spots, border crossers will discard all of their used items from their trip over the border and dress in street clothes to attempt to blend in, in case they are stopped at any checkpoints.

“That can result in as much as 10 tons of trash in any given location over a period of years,” Hart said. “We’re talking everything from backpacks, water bottles, deodorant, toothpaste, clothing, shoes. Everything.”

According to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s official website, it has been estimated that over 2,000 tons of trash are discarded annually in Arizona’s borderlands.

“It can’t be disputed that barriers, fences and roads limit the ability of wildlife to make use of all available habitat,” said Hart.

Currently, the ADEQ have partnered with other local and state departments and led efforts to try and clean up the thousands of tons of trash left throughout the southern Arizona desert, but the work is slow going.

Layup spots are often secluded and can be found over vast distances. They range for nearly a hundred miles from just over the border, up through Pima County and the Ironwood National Monument, all the way into southern Maricopa county.

If President Trump’s border wall is built, there is potential for widespread ecological damage to the borderlands environment.

A rare sighting of a bobcat near the U.S.-Mexico border, one of the many animals that would be affected by the reinforced border wall. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

However, if nothing is done to control the flow of illegal immigrants, the same environment will continue to have thousands of tons of trash dumped into it every year.

Due to the partisan political climate and the fact that illegal immigration remains a contentious national issue, passing any legislation to try and solve the problem one way or another is going to be a long and arduous process.

Whether from the U.S. government’s actions to stop the flow of illegal immigrants or to somehow limit the environmental impacts of illegal immigrants themselves, it seems wildlife in the US-Mexico borderlands will continue to suffer.

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