Fenced In

New efforts to secure the nation's border pose serious threats to wildlife.

By Amy Leinbach Marquis

As America races to secure its Mexican border with 700 miles of double- and triple-layered fencing, wildlife that have never known political boundaries will have no choice but to recognize them now. The fence, originally intended for urban areas, now slices through fragile wildlife habitats that are supposed to be protected by public lands.

Despite sensible arguments that a border fence—no matter how tall, thick, or expensive—won’t prevent illegal immigration, Congress voted overwhelmingly for the
Secure Fence Act in September 2006, and the Department of Homeland Security is on deadline to finish construction this year. The fence, projected to cost $6 billion, will run piecemeal along the 1,950-mile border from California to Texas.

In Arizona, the fence could pass through private backyards and Indian tribal land, and could obstruct decades of environmental protection on public lands like Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Coronado National Monument, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. These areas offer healthy, intact ecosystems to dozens of imperiled, border-crossing species like the black bear, desert bighorn sheep, Gila monster, and tropical kingbird. Even the federally listed jaguar, considered extinct in the U.S. until 1996, has been making a comeback.

No one denies that these borderlands could benefit from better security. When immigration officials clamp down in urban centers, illegal immigrants funnel into rural areas, damaging fragile habitat and cultural sites. So in one sense, Organ Pipe superintendent Lee Baiza welcomes part of the new 5.2-mile fence near Lukeville, Arizona, a gateway town just south of the park. It could eliminate illegal activity in a historically significant area that has been closed to the public for years because of safety concerns.

But such optimism is generally overshadowed by the fence’s impact on park wildlife. Tim Tibbitts, Organ Pipe’s wildlife biologist, predicts that coyote, gray fox, and bobcats that travel frequently through this area will be hardest hit. If illegal activity shifts west of the fence, prime Sonoran pronghorn habitat could suffer. “But my biggest concern is that the five miles of fencing we’re getting now is just the beginning,” he says.

Normally, Organ Pipe would conduct an environmental assessment and public hearing before proceeding with construction, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. But in the current climate, the Park Service has little say in border decisions; the Real ID Act of 2005 allows Homeland Security to waive legislation that interferes with the construction of physical barriers at the border.

Last year, for example, Homeland Security walled off the San Pedro River Corridor in Arizona without public input or an environmental assessment. When citizen groups successfully sued the agency, Secretary Michael Chertoff used a waiver under the Real ID Act to override the federal judge’s ruling and keep building. And in Texas, where the Rio Grande defines the international border, a fence would separate people and wildlife from a critical water source. To encourage compliance, Homeland Security is threatening to sue private landowners, condemn their property, and proceed with construction.

“If Congress upholds the Real ID Act, and the fence is built as proposed, there will be a cleansing of species from the borderlands region,” says Kim Vacariu, western director for the Wildlands Project in Arizona. Jaguars, he predicts, could disappear first, since so few exist in the U.S. More abundant species like mule deer may decline more slowly, but in time, those populations could become increasingly isolated, and a lack of genetic diversity would make them more prone to disease.

Last year, Defenders of Wildlife produced a report urging Homeland Security to adopt innovative, high-tech cameras and motion sensors that have little to no ecological footprint. The report also sug gests partnering with conservation groups and better funding agencies like the Park Service. And last November, NPCA helped Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) garner support for the Borderlands Conservation and Security Act, which would give land managers and local communities a say in border security decisions, recognize health and environmental laws, and create a fund to mitigate damage to habitat and wildlife. The bill was sitting idle with the Subcommittee on Border, Maritime, and Global Counterterrorism when the magazine went to print.

“Current immigration and enforcement activities along the border are destroying many of the Southwest’s most beautiful wilderness areas, but we don’t need to destroy our nation’s wildlife, parks, and refuges to protect our national security,” says Jamie Rappaport Clark, Executive Vice President of Defenders of Wildlife. “All it takes is a little foresight and planning to protect these important places even as we protect our borders.”

—Amy Leinbach Marquis 

This article appears in the Spring 2008 issue.

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