Border wall construction accelerates, harming wildlife and habitat

border wall
A recently completed section of border wall, photographed in April 2020, cuts through Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. Photo courtesy Center for Biological Diversity

Construction of the southern border wall has accelerated across the borderlands despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of miles of new construction have been announced in recent months, including through the remote Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Tinajas Altas Mountains, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona.

The Trump administration’s latest plan for the wall, which would wall off the last jaguar migration paths and bulldoze Arizona’s Sky Island mountains, has drawn opposition from thousands of people across the country. The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Sky Island Alliance submitted more than 8,200 comments from people opposing President Trump’s waiver of dozens of environmental and public health laws and calling for an immediate halt to wall construction.

And in mid-May, three conservation groups sued the administration for taking $7.2 billion from the Department of Defense for border wall construction without congressional approval. The lawsuit also challenges six waivers that sweep aside dozens of environmental and public health laws to fast-track wall construction in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

“These walls will destroy Arizona’s spectacular Sky Island mountains and be a death sentence for jaguars in the United States,” said Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity.

In September 2019, Jordahl wrote an article for BirdWatching that explains how border walls threaten birds.

“Thirty-foot-high walls in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument will block movement of Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, cutting off populations in Mexico from those in the United States,” he wrote. “Biologists say the border wall will impede the path of the rare, low-flying birds and threaten their recovery in Arizona and Mexico.”

Other borderland birds imperiled by walls include Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, Elf Owl, and Aplomado Falcon.

The administration is working on 74 miles of border walls in remote, mountainous terrain that corresponds with the remaining corridors jaguars use to move back and forth between the United States and a small breeding population of jaguars in Sonora, Mexico. Many other species use these remote areas to migrate across the landscape. A 2017 report identified 93 threatened and endangered species along the 2,000-mile border that would be harmed by Trump’s wall.

Construction work on the wall may also contribute to the spread of COVID-19. In May, Jordahl and Gail Emrick, executive director of the Southeast Arizona Area Health Education Center, reported that 4,000 workers are building the wall. They live in tight quarters and are “ignoring the important public health practices we’ve all embraced to flatten the curve and save lives.”

For up-to-date reports on wall construction, follow Jordahl on Twitter.

A version of this article appears in the July/August 2020 issue of BirdWatching. 

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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