October 16, 2019

A wildlife emergency is brewing at the border

Kendra Chamberlain

The existing vehicle barrier fencing that lines portions of the border in New Mexico is being replaced with bollard-style fencing, comprised of steel beams placed roughly 4 inches apart.

On a sunny, brisk Saturday morning in October, a group of 10 people gathered along the newest portion of the border wall between the United States and Mexico, built east of Santa Teresa in southern New Mexico. Construction has halted for the weekend, and the morning air is filled with the sound of birds.

“This is one of the most diverse areas in the U.S.,” said Kevin Bixby, the executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center and self-described “border tourism” guide for the group.

Behind him, the newly constructed steel wall rose up out of the low brush that makes up the New Mexico portion of the Chihuahuan Desert, which stretches from the Rio Grande Valley south of Albuquerque southward across northern and central Mexico.

Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwestern Environmental Center, stands before a section of border wall in southern New Mexico. Source: Kendra Chamberlain

Over the past twenty years, portions of the U.S. side of the desert have been severed from the rest of the ecoregion by border walls. Construction has ramped up in the past two years, as President Donald Trump has rushed to erect new segments across remote areas like this portion outside Las Cruces.

Scientists estimate the wall’s construction will impact hundreds to thousands of species of animals. But the effects of the wall will be difficult if not impossible to quantify, as no environmental assessments nor impact statements have been conducted to track the wall’s impacts on the surrounding wildlife. 

The legality of the wall’s construction is now being challenged in court. A few recent favorable rulings in the lower courts have encouraged environmental groups, but the U.S. Supreme Court lifted an injunction delaying construction of the wall earlier this year. Meanwhile, conservationists like Bixby are watching the wall construction progress eastward.

Bisecting the desert

The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest desert in North America, covering 250,000 square miles. The vast majority of that land is located in Mexico, but about 10 percent of the desert lies north of the border, in parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Scientists argue the border wall is fragmenting delicate and diverse ecoregions along the U.S.-Mexico border. In mid-2018, a group of 2,500 scientists banded together to raise awareness for the troubling developments along the border. The group was responding to a paper published in the journal BioScience, which called for “unified concern over the border wall’s negative impacts on wildlife, habitat, and binational collaboration in conservation and ­scientific research.”

RELATED: To protect wildlife, state agencies pledge collaboration in wildlife corridors

Bixby refers to the wall’s construction as “a recipe for extinction.”

“Species are comprised of populations. When you divide those populations through habitat fragmentation, habitat destruction, you make them more likely to disappear,” he said. “And when all the populations disappear, the species goes extinct.”

Looking west, the border wall stretches as far as the eye can see. This section was built in 2018. Source: Kendra Chamberlain

After the September 11 terror attacks, the Bush Administration installed miles of vehicle barrier fencing in the remote stretches of border in southern New Mexico. In 2018, 20 miles of vehicle barrier was removed and replaced with a bollard-style wall, comprised of steel posts, spaced just four inches apart, rising 15 feet above the ground, and casting a long, uninterrupted shadow across northern stretches of Chihuahuan Desert. 

With new funds from the Department of Defense for border wall construction, the Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of erecting 20-foot tall fencing where vehicle barriers once stood, at a rate of 200 feet per day

“You hear a lot that ‘Trump’s not building a new wall,’ and Democrats in Congress saying ‘we didn’t give Trump any money to build a new wall, just replacement fencing.’ Well, they replaced the vehicle barriers with this,” he said. “The problem with this, from a wildlife standpoint, is that if any part of your body is wider than four inches, you’re not going to be able to get through that gap — which is a lot of critters.”

The vehicle barrier fencing lines the border. To the right, piles of steel beams await installation. Source: Kendra Chamberlain

Researchers are now trying to determine impacts the wall might have on species that once moved freely across the international border. In 2018, the Southwest Environmental Center  placed a series of game cameras along the border to monitor how the wall and its construction was impacting the local wildlife.

“We caught photos and video of mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, javelina, mule deer, badgers, foxes, and a lot of smaller things,” Bixby said. The cameras also caught a resident mother bobcat with her young, climbing on the construction equipment.

“Most of those could not get through that gap,” Bixby said. He added that the height of the wall is too tall for some birds, such as quail and pygmy owls. 

“Even some butterflies won’t go that high,” he said. “We know there’s a lot of wildlife out here, we know there’s a lot of wildlife being impacted, but we don’t have good information on before and after, or how to quantify the impacts, because that sort of work is not being done, and it’s not being required to be done.”

An evolution in border security: Vehicle barrier fencing (right) is being replaced with a 20-foot high steel bollard wall (center). Source: Steve Wilkerson

A ‘lawless’ environment

Border wall construction has not been subject to environmental impact statements for 15 years, though that isn’t a well-known fact, Bixby said.

In 2005, Congress passed the Real ID Act, which gave the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the authority to waive key environmental laws —such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act — in the name of national security. 

DHS can also waive other state and federal laws, Bixby said, including “all of the laws on the books that are intended to protect Native American sites and cultural sites, archeological sites.”

“That waiver authority has been invoked every time since then that any sort of barrier has been built,” Bixby said. He added that no environmental assessment or analyses were done for either the 2018 portion of the wall or the current construction.

“In the name of bringing law and order to the border, they actually created a lawless environment,” he said.

Conservationists across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas are now ringing alarm bells for construction activities that they fear will prove devastating to fragile habitat along the border. Recent viral videos show construction workers bulldozing giant saguaro cacti to make way for border wall construction in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona. In Texas, wall construction has so far been concentrated in federally-managed wildlife refuges in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Requests for comments on border wall construction from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Customs and Border Protection were not answered as of press time. 

Challenging perceptions of the borderlands

Getting the word out about the problems the border wall presents to wildlife has proved challenging.

“I think the mentality in Congress, among people who should know better, but don’t live on the border is that the border wall is a waste of money, but it’s harmless. It’s not harmless,” Bixby said. “We can’t just give in on it. I think people are now becoming more aware.”

Conservation groups are now working to get the message out to non-border communities, said Antoinette Reyes, the Southern New Mexico Organizer for the Sierra Club.

“That’s helpful because it gives a different perspective,” she said. “Our communities are not dangerous, our communities are safe and welcoming. It’s not the image that’s being painted nationally.”

Bixby’s border tourism trips are also helping to raise awareness and spur concerned residents to contact their elected representatives.

“I think it’s up to us,” said Donna Tate, who attended the border tour. She encouraged other tour participants to reach out to their elected officials. “We can come along and look at the border wall and be angry about it and what it’s doing to the environment, and what it’s doing to our psyche and our relationships with Mexico. But if we don’t speak out, and write these letters and make these phone calls, so that our government knows how we feel, then it’s on us.”