It looks like President Donald Trump might get his stupid wall after all. Last week, the House approved a $1.6 billion spending bill that funds the construction of a “contiguous and impassable wall” along the Mexican border, and just yesterday the Department of Homeland security issued an environmental waiver to expedite border construction projects in the San Diego area. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan expressed his support via a tweet and a video, saying “It is time for The Wall.”
This pending border wall represents a disaster on several fronts, from the fiscal to the geopolitical. But as Rice University ecologist Scott Egan recently pointed out in an opinion editorial, this artificial barrier is also poised to disrupt the fragile ecological balance that exists along the proposed 1,900-mile-long southern wall.
“Evolutionary effects from the wall can change the balance of nature along the U.S.-Mexico border, putting wildlife in the area, including more than 100 endangered species, at risk,” wrote Egan. “Some of the larger animals that will be threatened by the border wall are the jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi, Mexican gray wolf, desert big horn sheep and pronghorn antelope.”
Egan’s comments jibe closely with a 2016 US Fish and Wildlife Service report claiming that an impregnable border between the two countries would “potentially impact” more than 111 endangered species, 108 migratory bird species, four wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, and countless protected wetlands. Endangered animals listed in the report include bald eagles, sea turtles, various bats, mice, and even the West Indian manatee.
“The ecological effects should be immediate, starting with the construction of the wall and all the building materials, construction vehicles and people involved,” Egan told Gizmodo. “This will be especially harmful in delicate or rare habitats. The ‘long term’ effects, or evolutionary effects, will materialize soon after that.”
Egan says there are two deleterious ecological effects to be concerned about. The first is a population bottleneck where a species is literally cut into two portions. For certain species, a wall will instantly produce two smaller populations, reducing genetic diversity and the ability of animals to adapt to environmental changes. The second problem will be an increased chance of inbreeding, which makes it more likely for an animal to pass on a problematic genetic mutation—a phenomenon known to biologists as homozygosity.
In addition, Egan is concerned about the dissection of natural migration routes, and future range expansions driven by climate change.
“There are many animals that naturally migrate across the border each year, such as the black bears in West Texas, or the pronghorn antelope across the Southwest. Interrupting these natural movements could have devastating effects on these species on both sides of the border,” Egan said. “Similarly, the border wall will trap populations that continue to move north in response to a warming and changing planet, potentially killing individual animals and populations or resulting in the future extinction of entire species unable to find habitats south of the border to survive.”
Some animals, such as bears and jaguars, may have no choice but to venture into areas inhabited by humans. Egan says this exact thing happened after a military control line was constructed between Pakistan and India in the 1970s.
Sadly, warnings from scientists are now routinely ignored by the White House, and the Trump Administration will likely look to the plight of jaguars, wild sheep, and antelope with pronounced indifference. As for existing federal and state-wide environmental protections, such as the Endangered Species Act, Trump is poised to do exactly what his Republican predecessor George W. Bush did back in 2008: plough right through these laws as if they don’t mean a goddamn thing.