The upcoming presidential election will decide more than just the next American leader; it could also determine the fate of numerous endangered wildlife species that depend on unimpeded access to both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border to survive.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden has pledged to immediately stop wall construction as well as the seizure of land by the Department of Homeland Security for construction purposes if he is elected president. President Donald Trump has repeatedly pledged to build 450 miles (724 kilometers) by the end of 2020 and his administration has already built at least 341 of those miles (549 kilometers). Though he has not specifically mentioned building more miles of the wall after 2020, it seems like a forgone conclusion that construction will continue.
If the 341 miles that have been built are any indication, it would be a disaster for wildlife. In many areas where the new wall is being built, barriers are 30 feet (9 meters wide with beams set only 4 inches (10 centimeters) apart, a distance too small for most animals to get through. There are also concerns about floodlights that surround the wall impacting the sleeping habits of nocturnal species like bats.
Building another 100 more miles before the end of the year—nevermind likely continuing construction for four more years if Trump is reelected—could mean the difference between life and death for the animals that call the borderlands home. Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the border wall is a “death blow” to already-jeopardized animals, as it blocks valuable wildlife corridors and could lead to a handful of species, such as the jaguar, ocelot, and cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, going extinct.
“The pace of destruction that we’ve seen in these last four years is truly stunning,” Jordahl said. “And never before has there been so much destroyed. The wall is severing ecosystems in two places.”
Despite a Department of Homeland Security report acknowledging the wall will “adversely affect the Gulf Coast jaguarundi and ocelot and could affect the northern aplomado falcon, Texas ayenia, and red-crowned parrot”, the administration has rushed ahead with construction.
A CBD report from 2017 predicted the “disastrous” impact of President Trump’s plans to build a wall, finding as many as 93 threatened, endangered, and candidate species would potentially be affected by the new infrastructure. The wall, the report found, would degrade or destroy more than 2 million acres of critical habitat for 25 species, including the arroyo toad and Peninsular bighorn sheep.
Despite repeated warnings from federal wildlife officials that the wall would kill wildlife, DHS began construction on Trump’s wall in January 2017. A recently released trove of documents from the Fish and Wildlife Service warned water extraction used to mix concrete for the wall would drain ponds in San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge (SBNWR) located in Arizona. Up to 700,000 gallons of water is extracted from the ground every day, the documents show, while endangered fish are killed from construction activity. The documents reveal Bill Radke, the refuge’s manager, warned of a “dire emergency” if the DHS was to continue pumping groundwater from the aquifers.
One email from Radke, sent in December 2019, stated: “[The department] considers the ongoing water withdrawal adjacent to SBNWR as being the current biggest threat to endangered species in the region.”
The same email shows Radke ordering other FWS officials to begin monitoring data immediately to document the “ongoing damage” to the aquifer in order to “determine and depict the point at which such damage is essentially permanent - and can never be recharged.” The Río Yaqui fish is already in a dire state due to the depletion of water resources by DHS.
“It’s a very real possibility that this fish will be the first driven to extinction by the border wall,” Jordahl said. “And the fact that a career scientist who works for the government is saying that the wall construction is the biggest threat to those species...That’s pretty incredible—and obviously not in a good way.”
The Trump administration is building its border wall “faster than ever before,” according to the DHS, with figures showing new construction is moving at a rate of around 10 miles per week. DHS rolled back environmental review laws, meaning regulations that usually apply to construction projects could be bypassed. The decision was made by DHS in 2017 to expedite building the wall, and environmental groups have been fighting it in the courts ever since.
“No matter who is building these walls,” Jordahl said, “they have been and will continue to be devastating for wildlife.
But the wall doesn’t just impact water-dwelling wildlife: It is a barrier for animals that travel by land and air, too. The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl is less than 7 inches (17.8 centimeters) tall, and weighs just 2.5 ounces (71 grams). Although once common in the Sonoran Desert, since 1993, no more than 41 pygmy owls have been found in the region in any given year. In Sonora, Mexico, the population has declined by 26 percent since 2000. The owls are low fliers, rarely flying higher than 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) from the ground. At its lowest point, the wall stands 18 feet (5.5 meters) tall, meaning the owls cannot pass over.
The inability to move freely will impact the owls’ breeding, isolating the U.S. population from the rest of the species in Mexico, restricting the genetic diversity. Sections of the wall have already been built, but it is too soon to track changes in the owl’s population.
In addition to bird species, four-legged, grounded animals face a similar fate. The Peninsula bighorn sheep, which roam hundreds of square miles and seasonally migrate through the U.S.-Mexico border, are just one such species that Stanford biologist Rodolfo Dirzo said in a university Q&A could be “genetically doomed.”
The sheep often travel through remote peaks in the La Rumorosa region, in Baja California, Mexico, and across the border into Jacumba Hot Springs, in San Diego County. There is a break in the existing border fence because there’s very rough terrain in that area, and researchers are seeing not only movement back and forth from the border, but use of the habitat by the peninsular bighorn sheep.
If Trump makes good on his initial 2016 pledge to build a wall along the entirety of the border, however, scientists fear the sheep will face a bleak future. Even in remote, mountainous regions, workers are dynamiting steep slopes in order to clear a path for the wall, such as in Guadalupe Canyon, where a 4.7-mile (7.6-kilometer) span is currently being constructed.
Maintaining corridors for the sheep is particularly important due to the species’ small population structure, and the success of the bighorn is reliant on cross-border movement.
In Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley, border wall construction is making slow progress. But the administration is pushing hard to build along the region. What is already built of the wall divides the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in two, threatening the ocelot.
“The ocelots are facing a dire situation,” Rurik List, head of conservation biology at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana-Lerma in Mexico, said. “A 4-meter high wall would be an impassable barrier to any non-volant animal, so ocelots from Mexico and their much needed genes to increase the genetic variability of the Texas population, would stay in Mexico.”
List said that animal populations had already begun disappearing from some areas, such as the pronghorns in the Mexican side of the Animas Valley in Sonora.
“Most of the population was on the New Mexico side, and the Mexican population depended on the regular movement to the south. After the barriers were set up across the valley, they stopped crossing and no pronghorn have been seen on the Mexico side [since],” List said.
Although Trump fell short of the 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) of wall he promised in his 2016 campaign, the administration has secured billions in funding and is now racing ahead with construction. The recent rate of building has increased to nearly twice the daily rate since the start of 2020, indicating he is serious on his pledge to deliver as much as he can.
Even if Biden is elected and construction stops now, List said species will continue to be affected, and so it would be necessary to push the new administration to assess areas where wildlife movement needs to be reestablished in order to ensure the long term future of the populations.
“There is nothing that makes me think that Trump will pursue an environmental agenda over the next four years,” List said. “In fact, if he can, he will continue the expansion of the wall, according to what he has said, and if that is the case, it will affect even more the species we have talked about.”
The more wildlife the region loses, the more altered—and impoverished—ecosystems become. Jordahl, however, remains hopeful.
“There is nothing permanent about these barriers,” he said. “We can tear the wall down. But that said, the longer they stay up, the likelier we’ll see these species go extinct.”