Border wall, © Matt Clark/Defenders

Saving Wildlife North and South of the Border

“South of the border, down Mexico way…” American cultural icons like Patsy Cline and Georgia O’Keefe were well attuned to the unique and even mystical allure of the US southwest and the region’s extension into neighboring Mexico. Cline crooned homages to Santa Fe, San Jose, and “old Spanish lace,” while O’Keefe painted the wild landscapes and burning colors of the desert. Like these women, most who have spent any time in the southwest and the borderlands will tell you that much of that allure comes from the myriad wildlife that shares the region’s inimitable landscape.

© Coronado National Forest/USDA

The borderlands are known for spectacular wildlife and natural vistas, like this one in the Coronado National Forest.

The sights of javelina families and pronghorn herds, the howls of Mexican gray wolves and growls of jaguars and ocelots, the colorful feathers of thick-billed parrots, the strong shelled backs of large tortoises are just a few of the treasures one might encounter when taking a trip to the borderlands. Unfortunately, these lands, and the many species of imperiled and endangered wildlife that occupy and define the native systems, are being put at risk by many threats, including destructive mining operations, poorly placed energy transmission lines, and, most significantly,  one very long, very steel structure. According to a recent study, one of the largest looming – and largely pointless – threats to wildlife in the southwest is the border wall.

While theoretically it is in place to control human crossing of the U.S.-Mexican border, the border wall actually does more to keep wildlife – not humans – from crossing between different areas of their habitat and accessing and connecting with different populations.

In fact, the new study, Conservation on International Boundaries: The Impact of Security Barriers on Selected Terrestrial Mammals in Four Protected Areas in Arizona, USA, showed that the intermittent fencing affects some native species, but does not necessarily restrict the movement of humans. Or in other words, animals can’t get over or around the wall, but people still can.

Maintaining connecting habitats is important for any species, but especially so for those with populations struggling to survive in the face of multiple threats. For some species, the corridors – or regularly traveled paths through the landscape – that they have relied on for centuries are now completely blocked by the wall. Without having access to different segments of their already-limited population, and without being able to reach critical remaining areas of habitat, it becomes even more difficult for these threatened species to feed, reproduce, remain healthy and contribute to the landscape that they are part of.

Border fence, © Matt Clark

A family of javelina trapped at the border fence that cuts across their habitat.

To study these kinds of direct impacts of the wall, wildlife biologists and zoologists used cameras in areas throughout the border region known to be high priority habitat for migrating wildlife – like the Coronado National Forest and Coronado National Memorial – and tracked the movements of 17 different mammal species, including humans. The results? Well, pictures don’t lie. In fact, they supported previous studies that showed large, permanent barriers like the border wall complicate and in some cases completely restrict the movement of both small and large mammals. As a result they can become isolated which makes them vulnerable to extreme events such as fire and flooding and can possibly lead to extinction. Furthermore, large carnivores, which rely heavily on interactions with each other and their prey, may be particularly vulnerable to these threats.

And for some of the mammals that were not apparently directly affected, the study also showed that even those species may be indirectly impacted in the long term. Because of the influence large carnivores have in a given ecosystem (mostly through their feeding habits), messing with one part of the food chain messes with all of the other links.

Jaguars at the Northern Jaguar Reserve, © Northern Jaguar Project

Jaguars are one of many species that depend on the Coronado for its unique habitat, and can be impacted by the border wall.

Conversely, while the study proved that many wildlife species are both directly and indirectly impacted by the wall, “…human activity did not appear to be affected… These results are supported by other research, which shows that international boundary security infrastructure has little or no effect on… international boundary crossings.” And part of this has to do with “the factors that drive US-Mexico migration, which are strong enough to overcome static prevention measures” – like a steel wall. It’s just as Janet Napolitano said several years ago; “show me a 50-foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder.” Unfortunately, very few wildlife species have access to ladders.

So, with all of the obstacles to survival that imperiled species must already try to overcome, from climate change to population loss and everything in between, there is no reason that we should be placing more unnecessary hurdles in their way. If we want to preserve the southwest that Patsy Cline and Georgia O’Keefe knew, we must think critically about how our actions affect the native wildlife and about what we can do to minimize negative impacts on the animals that make such lands the special places they are.

Courtney Sexton is a Communications Associate at Defenders of Wildlife.

12 Responses to “Saving Wildlife North and South of the Border”

  1. p

    The “wild pigs” in the photo are javelinas, not wild pigs and not related to the pig.

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Thanks for catching that – we’ve updated the caption.

  2. Jennifer Hennes

    Human beings just do not pay attention to the needs of wildlife. Too many people just do not care. It is a disaster! I just do not understand how so many can be so shallow and not give a second thought to how these incredible animals add to our world, and people just do not want to hear about how important it is to have a balance in our ecosystem, and how all our species are needed in our world. Somehow I guess we just have to keep trying to raise awareness on this subject. We cannot just give up!!!

  3. Jean Ossorio

    Excellent. The link to the PLOS 1 article is really helpful as I prepare a presentation on connectivity between Mexican wolf populations across the US/MX border for the Wild Wings Birding and Nature Festival in late July. Thanks!

  4. Laura Ice

    Yes, great article…. We humans just never seem to think (or care) about the “unintended consequences….

  5. Alexander Yeung

    There is some way to make a path between us and mexico for species in and out only.


    With your comment about the borders I didn’t see anything about the Canadian US border where more and more Canadians are becoming conscious of disappearing species of flora and fauna.. WE have them as you.. The one thing we don’t , thank The BUDDHA, is the annihilation of the wolves that is going on down there, Idaho , Montana etc. The animals don’t know borders,that’s a human screw up of great proportions globally. Up here in the near north, our turtle population is diminishing, particularly the ones I see squished on the road which cuts through their habitat,, especially when they migrate from one pond to another. They do!
    There is a group here called the Turtle Hospital and they know about this.. The main surviving turtles, not threatened, are the snappers. I pushed one off the road some months a ago. There was a wolf support agreement between our two countries to send some of our Western wolves down to the border states in the mountainous areas and we hear that they are thriving. It’s an oxymoron to have Canadian and American wolves interbreeding, to strengthen the packs and then killing them. Let the ranchers fence their cows’ grazing areas. It’s mostly greed which to me is indefensible, that drives these unethical and non emphatic shooters who are there for sport. (it’s the kill factor) I guess some just like killing…anything? Does anyone care about the diminishing herds of Cariboo, which have a relationship with the wolves and they don’t know borders either.
    To conclude I was honored to see a gray wolf, of a recovering eastern gray wolf pack, crossing the road in front of me.. I wish I could support financially . My heart is traumatized by these debacles. Please keep moving with your work. It is sadly frustrating with species survival in Canada also but at least hunting and shooting from airplanes and helos is illegal.I know, but I’m sure there is some positive spin-off. We have some similar issues , seals, polar bears, frogs, rattle snakes etc.( they are making a wonderful recovery) salmon, cod, killer whales and such.There is even a park exclusively for the big bad rattler and humans can only get there by water. These are pygmy rattlers and rarely bite and even if they do the venom is about as bad as a bee sting..some are dry bites. Live and let live…..

  7. John

    Maybe they could leave open spots in the wall where main migration trails are for the animals and have a hidden guard on duty in each of those area’s to keep humans out. We could use the Military Police for this, we currently pay them to sit around and do nothing anyway.

  8. kamryn

    i agree with john he has a point we pay taxes for the cops and military and they barely do anything. what one call for a sexual rape or whatever and the still dont do any thing. these animals need protection.

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