Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Trump's Border Walls are a Threat to both Flora and Fauna

The presidency of Donald Trump is a nightmare and his proposed wall will only make things worse. The Trump administration is infamous for their obsession with deregulation and contempt for science, environmental protection and climate action. Due to the dangers that it poses to plants and animals the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Defenders of Wildlife are all opposed to the building of more walls on the US-Mexico border.

The frontier between the two nations encompasses some of the most ecologically diverse regions in North America. The almost 2000 mile long border runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. It spans three mountain chains, the continent's two largest deserts, and several rivers.

Trump signed an executive order in August that is designed to expedite the environmental approval process. The EO may even force changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). There are negative consequences for wildlife associated with an expedited environmental review process. Barriers are harmful to animals from Texas on the East coast to California on the West. The Tijuana Estuary just south of San Diego is where the Tijuana River meets the Pacific Ocean. Building a wall here could adversely impact one of the most biodiverse areas in the state of California.

Trump has shown willful disregard for animal welfare. In March the administration eliminated protections for animals on organic farms. According to an April 11 Mother Jones article, a leaked document reveals that the Trump administration is planning to end protections for more than 300 threatened plant and animal species listed under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. His support for big game hunting suggests that even animals in Africa and elsewhere are not safe from this president.

Once dismissed as a pipe dream the US is ebbing ever closer to the building a wall along the border with Mexico. Although Trump has backed down on his repeated promise that Mexico will pay for the wall, he has requested $1.6 billion for the fiscal year 2018 to fund the first stage of the project. As explained by a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson, this would include 28 miles of new levee wall system in Rio Grande Valley, 32 new miles of border wall system in the Rio Grande Valley, and 14 miles of replacement secondary barrier in San Diego. The Department of Homeland Security will test eight prototypes this summer. Building the kind of wall that Trump promised on the Campaign trail could cost as much as $40 billion.

Predate Trump

In fairness, the myriad threats faced by wildlife predates Trump. Man-made species extinction attributable largely to habitat loss endangers half of the species on earth and global warming is adding to the pressure.

Over the course of two years, the Republican-controlled Congress passed two key pieces of legislation that harms wildlife. In 2005 Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which granted the Secretary of Homeland Security authority to bypass local, state and federal laws including the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Wilderness Act. This law precludes the need for environmental impact studies. In 2006 Congress passed the Secure Fence Act adding 700 miles of new border barriers including sections of the Arizona border along the San Pedro River.

Thousands of miles of roads have carved up formally wild landscapes including federally protected wilderness areas, national monuments, and wildlife refuges. A highway on the Mexican side of the border also poses a barrier to animal movements.

The Trump administration's deregulatory orgy and disdain for animal welfare have exacerbated an already difficult situation. As quoted by Vox the Sierra Club's Dan Millis said: "We’ve been dealing with all these negative environmental impacts of fences on the border for more than a decade." Millis added, "Trump’s proposal would make it worse.”

Existing walls

There are already 654 miles of barriers along the ecologically rich US-Mexico border. Research has shown that existing border walls have a number of adverse consequences. This includes increasing both erosion and flooding and diminished populations of some animal species. While they have not stopped human migration they have effectively isolated a range of animal species increasing inbreeding and reducing their genetic diversity. Restricting the movement of animals weakens the gene pool and limits the adaptive capacity of species already subject to significant pressure.

A 2011 study by Lasky et al estimated that 134 mammal, 178 reptile, and 57 amphibian species live within about 30 miles of the US Mexico border. Of those, 50 species and three subspecies are globally or federally threatened in Mexico and/or the United States. Lasky's research reveals that border barriers have been harmful to both wildlife and plants. He identified 45 species and three subspecies that are being dangerously isolated.

Texas border

Trump's proposed border wall could stop animals from moving freely in and out of Mexico including those that frequent the Texas wildlife refuges. Conservationists consider these refuges some of the most ecologically diverse regions along the 1,954-mile long border with Mexico.

A wall in the Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge would put at risk 19 federally threatened and endangered species and 57 state protected species.

As reported by Science Daily, recent study out of the University of Texas at Austin, suggests that a border wall in Texas will cause habitat fragmentation that will harm plants, animals, and tourism. The research was conducted by conservation biologists Norma Fowler and Tim Keitt. They are professors in the Department of Integrative Biology and they reviewed scientific literature in 14 publications.

In a letter published in the Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment, they say that erecting a wall on the Texas border with Mexico will result in habitat fragmentation and ecosystem damage. "I and other Texas biologists are very concerned about the impact this will have on our rich natural heritage," Fowler said.

The scientists are concerned that a wall along the Rio Grande floodplain could hurt ecotourism and this will have significant economic implications. Birders flock to the Lower Rio Grande River Valley generating hundreds of millions of dollars ($344 according to a 2011 Texas A&M study).

"If ecotourism declines significantly because access to preserves has been impeded, there may be negative economic impacts on the region," the letter states.


Flooding is one of the dangers for wildlife associated with the building of border walls. A wall along the Rio Grande could pose a flood risk. "They are particularly problematic because they would be the first walls built inside the Rio Grande floodplain, and thus are likely to cause floods in the populated areas where they are planned," Millis said.

Scientists are concerned that a wall along the Rio Grande floodplain will exacerbate flooding. The letter from Fowler and Keitt says, "if the barriers are not far enough from the river, they may trap wildlife escaping from floods, and may even act as levees, which tend to increase downstream flooding."

We have already seen how existing border walls have caused flash flooding in Nogales and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona. These floods caused two deaths and millions of dollars in damage.

"Flood water always has debris in it," Millis says. "That’s how you got these damming events that blew out chunks of wall. Damming also causes erosion — it creates the situation we saw in Arizona where debris backs up the water and then the sediment building upstream created a waterfall that causes more erosion. This is liable to happen in Texas."

Arizona/New Mexico border

Between Texas and California, Arizona and New Mexico share a long stretch of border with Mexico. Wildlife in these two states is already suffering the effects of climate change including warmer temperatures, shorter rainy seasons and drier winters. A barrier along the border could augur the end for some species.

Only 60 miles of Arizona's border with Mexico is not fenced off. Adding more border barriers could prove deadly to animals already struggling with home ranges that are prone to severe droughts. "A lot of species do best in Northern Mexico, but with changes in precipitation patterns, they would need to disperse across the border," says Lasky.

Even birds and fish are at risk. The ferruginous pygmy owl is in jeopardy because research shows they rarely fly high enough to clear border walls. Other winged creatures at risk include some species of bats and the monarch butterfly. A wall straddling the Rio Yaqui could add more pressure to already endangered fish in the San Bernardino wildlife refuge.

The movement of the endangered Sonoran pronghorn, which tends to avoid roads and fencing, will also be further restricted. Other species likely to be vulnerable to border barriers include bighorn sheep and black bears.


Jaguars have been spotted crossing the border from Mexico however, any hope that the 300 jaguars left in the Sonoran Desert could one day repopulate Arizona and New Mexico would be definitively crushed by the building of this wall.

Building a wall in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas could destroy the habitat of the remaining Jaguars and more than 400 bird species. A barrier could also pose a threat to ocelots and rare plant species.

"The only hope for natural re-colonization [of jaguars] in the U.S., however remote, hinges on maintaining this core population to the south, and its connectivity," said Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera.

Better solutions

Many question the utility of building a wall to stem the flow of people and drugs into the US from Mexico. They point out that those who want to access the US will still be able to tunnel under the barrier. The wall will succeed in cutting off wildlife from traversing the frontier. Even the Border Patrol which supports the wall admits that it will be largely symbolic.

In a Scientific American article, Aaron Flesch, a wildlife biologist at the University of Arizona, was quoted as saying: "In wild settings, people are really the only species we know is definitely going to get over the wall or under it,"

Rather than build a wall, both border security and wildlife preservation could be achieved through other means including electronic sensors and vehicle boundaries that leave room for most animals to get through.

"Negative impacts could be lessened by limiting the extent of physical barriers and associated roads, designing barriers to permit animal passage and substituting less biologically harmful methods, such as electronic sensors, for physical barriers," the letter from conservation biologists states.

Protect protected areas

Protecting protected areas could be a game-changing solution. A total of 25 million acres of protected US public lands are within 100 miles of the US-Mexico border. Along the US border there are six wildlife refuges, six national parks, tribal lands, wilderness areas, and conservation areas. On the Mexican side of the border, there are a number of protected areas including El Pinacate y Gran Desierto Altar, which abuts the US Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and parts of the Organ Pipe National Monument and Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona.

Arizona and New Mexico's border with Mexico encompasses one of the largest protected areas in North America. The Sky Islands region is home to thousands of species many of which will be subject to even greater stress from the proposed wall. Sky islands has one of the most ecologically diverse assortments of flora and fauna anywhere in North America (eg spotted owls, thick-billed parrots, barred tiger salamanders, Mount Graham red squirrels). Sky Islands also includes the Coronado home to the greatest number of threatened and endangered species of any US national forest.

Climate change is putting additional pressures on wildlife, however, the American government can assist with adaptation programs on public lands along the border. These programs could help to save species on both sides of the border.

"We’re already experiencing hotter temperatures, a shorter monsoon season, drier winters," Scott Wilbor, conservation science director for the Sky Islands Alliance was quoted as saying. "We have a lot of capacity on our U.S. public lands to implement adaptation strategies," he says, including restoring streams and seeps, and harvesting rainwater. "But we need cross-border connectivity so these species can have their full range." However, Trump has shown that he has little interest in investing in adaptation.

"Trump’s wall could deal a blow to wildlife if it severed key corridors that until now have remained open and passable." Cally Carswell wrote. At risk is a wide range of animal species including some that are not found anywhere else. The wall would almost guarantee the extinction of two of the most majestic apex predators on the continent, the northern Jaguar, and the Mexican gray wolf.

Trump's border wall makes no sense because there are other less expensive technologies that are more effective. While a wall may achieve Trump's political objectives it will not prevent people and drugs from entering the country. It will however hasten the demise of many species. Contrary to his xenophobic rhetoric Trump's "big, beautiful wall" is anything but.

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