Consider Wildlife When Erecting Border Barriers

The Constituency Too Often Left Out of Debate on a Border Wall Between the US and Mexico

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The border region is one of the most biodiverse areas in the United States and an intersection for many carnivores. Photo: D. Alarcon

By Jon P. Beckmann
September 10, 2017

[A version of this story originally appeared in the San Antonio Express-News]

Funding for a massive border wall will be debated again as negotiations over the administration’s budget request for the new fiscal year get under way. As divisive as the border has been for groups concerned with national security and immigrant issues, there is another constituency whose needs should be part of the conversation: wildlife.

The border region is one of the most biodiverse areas in the United States and an intersection for many carnivores. In 2011, I worked with colleagues in state and federal agencies to identify 14 potential corridors connecting core habitat for bears, wolves and other large carnivores in the Sky Island Region on the border. These animals have been traveling these pathways for centuries to maintain their populations and gain access to food, mates and water.

For several years, the U.S. and Mexican governments have been working to define critical habitat and reduce threats such as roads and enhance species protection for carnivores and other species. Together, we have worked to restore populations of species such as the Mexican wolf, the smallest and rarest wolf in North America, on either side of the border. Meanwhile, yet another jaguar tripped a camera trap this winter in Arizona 60 miles north of Mexico.

The Mexican wolf historically ranged across New Mexico, Arizona, West Texas, and northern Mexico, although predator removal programs driven by conflicts with livestock led to their local extirpation. Successfully restoring these and other carnivores requires that conservationists listen to and work with diverse, local communities as they adapt to living with these creatures on a daily basis.

The best argument for ensuring that wild carnivores have access to cross-border habitat comes from science. Our research found that bears in the southern United States and northern Mexico are closely related and depend upon movements through pathways across the border. Such corridors for movement are likewise important in maintaining populations of other rare species in the region like bison and Sonoran pronghorn.

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This photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows a Jaguar photographed by a motion-detection camera in the Dos Cabezas Mountains in southern Arizona. The cat likely cross the U.S./Mexico border, something a border wall would prevent. Photo: Bureau Of Land Management /AP

Decision makers from the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Patrol, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state and federal wildlife and land management agencies, and all the equivalent agencies in Mexico must consider this type of information and incorporate the needs of wildlife into border plans.

The hundreds of miles of barriers already constructed along the border provide a model to achieve the right balance. In urban areas such as San Diego with large human populations and more remote locations known as high crossing areas, one commonly finds “pedestrian” fencing — typically a solid barrier several meters high. This barrier, effective against people, blocks the passage of all terrestrial wildlife.

More porous “vehicle” fencing is found in other areas largely inaccessible to people, but not to wildlife. Conservationists have information that can tell decision makers which areas along the border might be considered for wildlife-friendly fencing and how these various “wall” designs may influence different species.

Some proponents of strong border security measures will argue that we cannot spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build a wall only to have it be passable for wildlife in certain areas. This assumes that the security and conservation communities don’t have the creativity and ingenuity to find solutions.

Before new negotiations over the federal budget get underway and any decisions are made to construct a border wall, now is the time to ensure an informed conversation about how it would impact wildlife were it to be constructed.

Can we maintain important linkages for wildlife in a transboundary region in the context of a border fence without compromising immigration and national security goals? I think the answer is yes if we plan using the best available science and factor the needs of transboundary wildlife into the plans.

Jon P. Beckmann is a conservation scientist with the Americas program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

A version of this article was originally published at on September 10, 2017.

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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