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Guest Opinion: Border wall plan would endanger NM’s wildlife

Bryan Bird - March 23, 2018

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Last year a lone Mexican wolf set out from the wilds of Chihuahua State in Mexico. Released by the Mexican government, he was fitted with a radio collar allowing his every movement to be tracked. The lobo was likely looking for new territory and maybe a mate to spend his life with. He crossed the international border east of Columbus and headed north across the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Somewhere west of Las Cruces, he returned south along the Rio Grande until he was back in his country of birth.

Wildlife knows no international boundaries; it’s all the same to them. But, as Congress considers funding for U.S.-Mexico border wall additions, some of New Mexico’s most iconic wildlife and greatest conservation investments are placed at risk.

On Jan. 22, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen exercised the authority conveyed to her by Congress to waive 26 laws along the international border in New Mexico. Among the surrendered laws were the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The “Santa Teresa waiver” covers vehicle barrier replacement with an impenetrable, “pedestrian” wall along 20 miles of the border west of the Santa Teresa Port of Entry.

Like many regions along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico boundary, the borderlands of New Mexico and Chihuahua are rich in biological diversity and are home to endangered animals. Extending the border wall would fragment vital ecosystems and landscapes protected on either side of the border by the two countries, jeopardizing decades of binational conservation investment.

The borderlands of New Mexico are home to both common and extremely rare animals; the scarcest of all are the Mexican gray wolf and the jaguar. Jaguars were once widespread in the southwestern United States, ranging as far north as the Grand Canyon, before they were extirpated in the early 20th Century. There are signs the jaguar is making a comeback, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has designated critical habitat for the animal in New Mexico’s bootheel.

Common animals popular for hunting also populate the U.S.-Mexico borderlands including turkey, Mearn’s or Montezuma quail and the Coues whitetail deer found only in the southwestern region of the state, with the highest numbers near the Arizona and Mexico borders. A population of American bison are known to cross from Mexico into the U.S.
The border wall and associated infrastructure and activity put wildlife, habitat and conservation investment at risk along the entire U.S.-Mexico border by:

• Destroying vegetation and harming wildlife directly.
• Disrupting and altering wildlife behavior as animals avoid the lights, noise, patrols and other enforcement-related disturbances.
• Making it impossible to have connected cross-border populations essential for the genetic health and persistence of species like bighorn sheep, bison, Mexican gray wolves and pronghorn antelope.
• Preventing species from crossing the border to establish new populations.
• Hindering cooperation and complicating or ending cross-border conservation.
• Wasting billions of dollars that could otherwise be spent on conservation or other worthwhile endeavors.
• Decreasing revenues in municipalities that depend on tourism and outdoor recreation.

The next time a Mexican gray wolf attempts to find a mate in the United States, it may run into a wall. Defenders of Wildlife is joining communities and organizations all along U.S.-Mexico border who don’t want a border wall and 150-foot-wide enforcement zone to run through people’s lands, neighborhoods or wildlife habitat. We believe strongly that no one is above the law and that no single president has the authority to ignore the intent of Congress. We have already taken the Trump administration to court over its waiver of more than 30 environmental laws to build the border wall in California and will continue to fight this ill-advised effort in New Mexico.

This article was published in the Albuquerque Journal