TIJUANA B.C. Mexico – Perhaps the greatest signature line – and policy – of the Trump administration has been to “build that wall”. In reality, however, the idea is not a new one, with the construction of some kind of barrier between the USA and its southern neighbor being a point of contention since the Clinton administration of the 1990s.
To date, the 650 miles of barriers in existence have succeeded in blocking movement across the border, but not in the way they were intended. Perhaps surprisingly, the greatest impact has not been on migrants or asylum seekers, but the vast array of migratory species – many at risk of extinction – which now find an insuperable, human-built impediment to their natural movements in the middle of the desert.
As the wall cuts through vital wildlife refuges and unique ecosystems, emblematic species are threatened, including the final three remaining jaguars in the US, the critically endangered Sonoran pronghorn, and some of the last populations of ocelots, among an estimated 90 other endangered or threatened species at risk of extinction.
On the front lines of this advocacy is The Center of Biological Diversity, championing the protection of borderland biosites, using existing legislation or challenging new laws in order to slow or stop construction along the frontier. Nevertheless, many of its currently active 200+ lawsuits remain pending or unacknowledged in the face of the US federal government’s focus on migration as a national security issue, allowing for loopholes which permit border construction to circumvent any environmental review or consultation.
With 40 federal laws waived already, what is now considered the largest dismissal of law in US history may very well destroy one of the biggest and most biodiverse ecosystem complexes on the continent.
“A standard issue with policy-making is that the environment is always an add-on,” says Alejandro Olivera, Mexico’s representative for the Center for Biological Diversity, “it’s rarely considered fundamentally as a core principle – which of course is ridiculous. It should be the most important part of everything we think and do, always. Moreover, the environment doesn’t recognize human frontiers – whether it be wind and rain, or more specific creatures such as the Arizona jaguar.”
This jaguar, Panthera onca arizonensis, is the largest cat native to North America and one of its most endangered species, just returning to its ecological role in the southwest United States after being killed to near extinction.
As a top predator, jaguars are necessary to balance the food chain by controlling the populations of other species. Since 2015, however, only three wild jaguars have been seen in the United States, all in Arizona. Perhaps the most famous, “El Jefe”, was sited outside Tucson, “Yo’oko Nashuareo” was seen in the Huachuca Mountains, and the newest, “Sombra”, was spotted in the Dos Cabezas Mountains.
All three are male, corroborating the common practice for male jaguars to search for new habitat once they outgrow their current territory, to be followed later by females. However, the jaguar population will not be able to re-establish itself in the US if migration from northern Mexico is blocked. Even if some females were to cross before the wall was constructed, the minuscule population size would precipitate in-breeding and genetic isolation.
According to the Center of Biological Diversity, Trump’s latest plan for approximately 74 miles of border construction would wall off all the jaguar migration corridors between the US and Mexico, blasting through vital protected areas like the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, Tinajas Altas Mountains, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
These new segments are in remote, mountainous, and rugged terrain that, while extremely treacherous for humans, are perfect habitat for jaguars. Although the Sierra Club and Sky Island Alliance have submitted more than 8,000 statements from people who oppose this new development, the plan is still poised to disregard up to 65 laws that protect public health, clean air and water, as well as endangered species, as specified by Sierra Club Campaign Coordinator Dan Millis.
The jaguar is of course not alone: the Sonoran pronghorn, a species that resembles an antelope but whose closest relative is actually a giraffe, is another animal threatened by the wall. With only 100 left in the United States and fewer than 1,000 in the US and Mexico combined, it is one of the country’s most endangered mammals. Their only habitat is found in northwestern Sonora and southwestern Arizona, and their extreme vulnerability to drought makes unfragmented territory a necessity for their survival. As climate change intensifies the harsh desert climate, the Sonoran pronghorn must be able to travel long distances for food and water.
Wall construction, however, is aiming to divide much of their critical territory, and at one point brought the US population down to 20. Krista Schyler, award-winning photographer and conservation writer, explains that plans for a border in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge would isolate a small population from their larger herd in El Pinacate, Mexico, and – once again – leave them vulnerable to in-breeding and disease. In 2012, construction in the Chihuahuan Desert, an area that composes part of the last 5% of protected grasslands worldwide, saw two herds of pronghorn begin to die when all of the sexually mature males were trapped on the other side of the barrier. These wildlife refuges that are targets for wall construction are not major crossing points for migrants due to harsh conditions and vast desert land, but could be the difference between survival and extinction for species like the Sonoran pronghorn.
As the effects of climate change intensify each year, animal migration pathways are more important than ever, ensuring access between increasingly-scarce resources. However, the likes of the bighorn sheep, ocelot, Arizona jaguar, Sonoran pronghorn, Mexican gray wolf, and ferruginous pygmy owl compose only a small sample of the wildlife threatened by a border policy that fails to demonstrate conclusive data towards how a wall reduces levels of undocumented immigrant crossing.
Of course the environment transcends artificially conceived boundaries, demonstrating the essential interconnectivity of all life on earth and necessarily also humans to their landscapes, and the existence of one of the most unique ecosystems on the continent is now gravely threatened by being divided between two nations. “This is not just an issue for the US and Mexico. We’re talking about a World Heritage site,” says Alejandro Olivera. “Just as with the Amazon, other countries have a vested interest. We are all stakeholders in impeding environmental catastrophes.”
For The Yucatan Times
Raquel Anais Smith
Raquel Anais Smith is a freelance writer specializing in environmental features, published across a variety of international online and print media.