In the Shadow of the Wall

As Congress considers funding for additional U.S.-México border security in perilous political times, some of the country’s greatest conservation investments are placed at risk. Like many regions along the 2,000-mile U.S.-México boundary, the borderlands of Texas are rich in biological diversity and threatened and endangered species. Extending the border wall would fragment vital ecosystems and vast landscapes protected on either side of the border by the two countries, jeopardizing decades of binational conservation work and investment.

Furthermore, many border communities don’t want to be overrun by Border Patrol agents and invasive technology, like lights, cameras, and drones, which is Customs and Border Protection’s vision for a “smart wall.” This border militarization will take private land through eminent domain, divide wildlife habitat, cause erosion and flooding, introduce invasive species and encroach on the privacy of border residents. Building any kind of wall — smart or otherwise — will require the condemnation of private property and could mean thousands of acres of wildlife habitat bulldozed.

Here at Defenders of Wildlife, we’ve been undertaking an exhaustive review of conservation achievements and investment by both countries along the length of the entire U.S.-México border. The results to be published early in 2018 demonstrate the unacceptable risk border walls and militarization present to this impressive legacy of conservation.

The rich natural history of the borderlands in Texas are imperiled further by border walls. One hundred and fifty years ago, jaguars and ocelots prowled the hundreds of thousands of acres of subtropical riparian forest that lined the banks of the Rio Grande in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Today, less than 5 percent of this forest remains in the United States with 1 percent on the Mexican side. Jaguars are gone from Texas, likely forever, and the ocelot population is down to fewer than 100.

An inspiring binational effort to restore the ocelot populations to their former range is ongoing and supported in both countries. Experts from the United States and Mexico jointly developed an ocelot recovery plan with a major goal of ensuring that ocelots can freely cross the border to interbreed. The Mexican nonprofit Pronatura Noreste is working with the Dallas Zoo, Environmental Defense Fund and others in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas to survey ocelots and help landowners with projects to protect its habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and The Nature Conservancy are acquiring private land to expand the refuges and are working with landowners to protect habitat on private land. U.S. irrigation districts have signed agreements to maintain ocelot habitat along canals, and in 2016 the Texas Department of Transportation began constructing a dozen highway crossings for ocelots, spending $8 million to decrease road mortality. This significant bi-national conservation endeavor is placed in jeopardy by the proposed border wall and militarization.

Another impressive conservation achievement in the Lower Rio Grande Valley is the 98,000-acre Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge which borders the giant Laguna Madre coastal lagoon at the Rio Grande delta. The Laguna Madre extends across the U.S.-México border far into Mexico where it is part of the 1.4 million-acre Laguna Madre and Delta del Rio Bravo Natural Protected Area. In winter, Laguna Madre hosts hundreds of thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl, including the largest concentration of redheaded ducks in the world.

Long-billed Curlew, Laguna Atascosa NWR (left) and Least Grebe, Santa Ana NWR (right)

These protected landscapes support a robust ecotourism industry which is now in jeopardy. A recent study by Texas A&M University found that nature tourism in the overall Lower Rio Grande Valley contributed $463 million per year.

Just the tiny, three-square-mile Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, on the Rio Grande, is visited by 165,000 people annually, pumping more than $35 million per year into the local economy. An impenetrable border wall or even 150-foot-wide enforcement zone with lights, vehicles, drones and other technology would cut off the refuge from its own visitor center and the public and lead to drowning of wildlife in flood events.

The Looming Threat of the Wall

The border wall and associated infrastructure and activity put wildlife, habitat and conservation investment at risk along the entire U.S.-México border by:

  • Further imperiling already rare species in which the United States and Mexico have significant investments.
  • Making it impossible to maintain the large connected, cross-border populations important for the genetic health and persistence of Mexican wolves, jaguar, bighorn sheep, bison, ocelot and other species.
  • Sending billions of dollars to infrastructure and breaking apart landscapes and communities instead of conservation of wildlife and recreation opportunities.
  • Harming aesthetics and consequently diminishing revenues in municipalities with economies based on ecotourism or outdoor recreation.
  • Chilling the relationships that drive the binational cooperation essential for successful conservation in the borderlands.

Defenders is joining communities and organizations all along U.S.-México border that don’t want a 150-foot-wide enforcement zone to run through people’s lands, neighborhoods or wildlife habitat. Please join the Border Week of Action and call 888–369–9935 to tell your senator that a wall — smart or otherwise — is not a smart choice for the wildlife or wild lands that both Americans and Mexicans are proud to protect.

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