At first glance, the Chihuahuan Desert seems, well, deserted: mostly sand, spotted with mesquite and soaptree yucca. But it’s actually home to lots of wildlife, from coyotes and javelina to mountain lions and the endangered Mexican gray wolf.
“All sorts of animals have evolved for millennia untold to migrate freely through the desert,” says Laiken Jordahl with the Center for Biological Diversity. “And now we have this landscape-scale obstruction that will stop all species in their tracks.”
Jordahl stands in front of that so-called obstruction: a newly-built, bollard style wall. Eighteen foot high, rust-colored columns divide the U.S. from Mexico. They replaced vehicle barriers, which are waist-high, X-shaped barricades.
In some parts of southern New Mexico, steel columns have replaced vehicle barriers along the border.
MALLORY FALK / KRWG
“The vehicle barrier before did not stop the migrations of wildlife,” Jordahl says. “So this barrier is obviously far more substantial, far more significant.”
Debates continue over extending the border wall. But here in southern New Mexico, new barriers have already been built. Construction was completed last November on twenty miles of bollard wall near the Santa Teresa port of entry. Conservationists like Jordahl are concerned about the impact of, as he puts it, cutting an ecosystem in two.
“To think we could do something like this free of significant environmental consequences, it’s delusional,” he says. “We’re fundamentally changing the landscape here.”
For one, he says, it can put endangered species like the Mexican gray wolf at even greater risk of extinction.
“There’s only about 150 of them left in existence and they have two isolated populations, one in northern Mexico and one in New Mexico and Arizona,” Jordahl says. “The recovery of the wolf in a lot of ways hinges on those two populations reconnecting.”
If a wolf migrating north hits a steel barrier, he says, it might be forced to turn around. “And that would axe it changes of finding food, water and a mate,” he says.
The wall could also impact vegetation since javelina help spread plant seeds. “They actually disperse seeds in their scat,” Jordahl says.
And it can mess with predator-prey relationships. The wall gives birds an unnaturally high perch and an unfair advantage to pick off small reptiles and rodents.
Jordahl isn’t the only one raising concerns. More than 2,700 scientists signed onto a 2018 paper outlining the harm Trump’s proposed border wall would cause to some of the continent’s most biologically diverse regions and calling for the administration to rethink its approach to border security.
Kevin Bixby is with the Southwest Environmental Center, which is based in Las Cruces.
“There’s a lot of silly semantics going on in the national debate over whether it’s a wall or a fence,” he says. “From our perspective, if it’s a big structure that prevents the passage of wildlife, it’s a wall.”
Bixby says we may never know the full environmental impact of the wall, since the government doesn’t have to conduct any environmental impact studies. That’s because of something called the REAL ID Act.
“In 2005 Congress gave the Department of Homeland Security the authority to waive any federal, state or local law deemed necessary to expedite the construction of border wall,” Bixby says. The government can bypass laws that normally come into play during big construction projects, like the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.
“Normally they would have to do an environmental analysis of the potential impacts of what they’re proposing to do,” Bixby says. “They would look at the impacts on wildlife, air, water, hydrology. Impacts to Native American gravesites, cultural sites.”
But that didn’t happen with the new wall in Santa Teresa. The Center for Biological Diversity is challenging the government in court, arguing that the waiver authority expired years ago.
A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection said the agency can’t comment on pending litigation. The CBP website says the new bollard wall meets the need for additional border infrastructure in the area and that “concerns regarding the environment have been and are consistently being addressed during this process.”
Meanwhile, some local lawmakers want to prevent further construction. Las Cruces Representative Angelica Rubio introduced a bill that would ban border wall construction on state land.
“It also includes legislation that prohibits New Mexico from doing business with businesses who are part of building the border wall,” Rubio says.
For his part, Kevin Bixby understands there are more concerns than just conservation.
“I know some people will think, ‘well that’s too bad for the wildlife but national security is more important,'” he says. “And if we really were facing that choice, I might agree with them. If there was an existential threat to the country and the only solution was to wall off our southern border, I might concede that argument.”
But in his view, at least, that isn’t the case.