While debate swirls around the border wall — whether it’s immoral, whether it even works — one huge impact, while understood, is just not being discussed:
The wall is already an ecological catastrophe, devastating rare and endangered species, carving up critical habitats, exacerbating flooding, even worsening climate change. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that the wall “may very well lead to the extinction of the jaguar, ocelot … and other species” in America.
This is tragic, as the 2,000-mile border, stretching from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico along the Rio Grande, passes through three mountain chains, North America’s two largest deserts, and the Tijuana Estuary, a salt marsh that offers habitat for 400 species of birds. An astonishing 25 million acres of protected public lands lies near the border on the American side, including wildlife refuges, national parks, and wilderness areas with large refuges on the Mexican side as well, all created by the long, hard work of many organizations and agencies aiming to protect land that is biologically unique and fragile.
It’s a diverse area, too: A 2011 study documented 134 mammal, 178 reptile, and 57 amphibian species living in the wall region; 56 of these species that already been hurt by the wall, including five that are at risk for extinction, one the jaguarundi, a small cat.
The jaguar, that cat’s bigger cousin, is the poster child for the wall’s ecological impact. Once hunted to extinction in the U.S., jaguars in northern Mexico have been spotted moving back into Arizona. Protected both here and in Mexico, its U.S. recovery plan — written by the federal government (!) — calls for free movement of these 300-pound predators across the border. The few cats that have reclaimed their American habitat will not recover if they cannot return to Mexico to find mates.
There’s a huge irony in the wall’s impact. Built to stop people, a 2014 study used cameras to compare the movements of people and wildlife in areas with and without border walls. While researchers discovered that pumas and coatis were found in higher numbers in areas with no walls, they saw no difference in the number of people counted in the two areas. The wall works for animals better than it does people.
Consider water, critical as the Rio Grande forms most of our border. In 2008, a storm ripped through the Nogales sister cities, and the border wall that separates Arizona’s Nogales from Mexico’s Nogales accidentally acted as a dam, flood water pooling up to the tops of door frames on the Mexican side and drowning two people. Walls become dams in floods, and with climate changing, flooding is intensifying, the wall aggravating an already bad problem.
On the humanitarian side, climate change is a hidden driver of those notorious caravans. Last fall, the Guardian talked to an indigenous Mayan from western Honduras as he walked with a caravan. Jesús Canan shared how he once grew maize and beans, but joined the caravan after repeated crop failures from drought and changing weather.
“It didn’t rain this year,” he said. “Last year, it didn’t rain. My maize field didn’t produce a thing … There was no harvest.” So he left behind a wife, three children — and his land. As the climate crumbles, more Central Americans will trek north. One obvious solution to the border crisis: protect the climate.
The odds of that are even more remote than the president caving in on his demand to build a wall, which is now not only a humanitarian crisis, but an ecological one too.