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'That is how you cause extinction': Border wall threatens desert ecology, conservationists say

Lauren Villagran, El Paso Times, October 11, 2019

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In night-cam videos, a bobcat prowls past construction equipment at the border wall; a mule deer buck sniffs the air nearby, his eyes aglow; and a palm-sized kangaroo rat leaps in the darkness as it hunts.


Construction of a border wall as tall as a two-story house is creeping across the New Mexico desert at a rate of 200 feet a day, through one of the most biologically diverse landscapes in North America.


Environment advocates say the new 30-foot steel barrier — the first of its kind in New Mexico — could keep out more than just people as it represents a significant threat to vulnerable Chihuahuan desert species, including bobcats and mountain lions.


"That is how you cause extinction," said Kevin Bixby, director of the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces. "You fragment habitat."


A barrier that blocks movement across a landscape can divide animal populations, and "the smaller a population is, the more vulnerable it is to disappearing, through a number of factors like disease or catastrophe or inbreeding," Bixby said. "It’s death by a thousand cuts."


The Center, in 2018, positioned cameras near the borderline in southern New Mexico to capture the diversity of wildlife. Bobcats, mountain lions, birds, badgers and other critters can be seen in the day and night, defying those who would call the desert landscape "barren."


About 25 miles west of the Santa Teresa port of entry, the Army Corps of Engineers was working this week to lift towering panels of steel at the borderline. The new fence will extend 46 miles to the Columbus port of entry, effectively walling off all of Doña Ana County and much of Luna County from the landscape in Mexico's northern Chihuahua state.


In a statement, the Army Corps said "no wildlife passages have yet to be identified as needed," in the 46-mile project. For additional wall projects being planned for New Mexico, the Army Corps said that "small wildlife passages might be needed due to their close proximity to the wilderness area" in the state's southwest corner.


As the border barrier walls off more habitat through New Mexico and Arizona, conservationists worry about the endangered species, including the jaguar and Mexican gray wolf, whose severely limited populations exist on both sides of the border and need to connect. Wall projects are also slated for their habitat, in New Mexico's southwest corner.


Other species with low population densities in the desert such as mule deer and pronghorn antelope, although not yet threatened, could be affected as the barrier slices through their habitat.



John Moreno, left, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regional business director, and Guillermo Provencio, right, resident engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, talk about the construction of the new border fence during U.S. Reps. Adam Smith and Veronica Escobar's tour of the construction site Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in New Mexico. It is being built in rural Southern New Mex


New Mexico was low-hanging fruit for an administration bent on building the border wall to fulfill Trump's oft-repeated campaign promise.


Unlike in South Texas — where private landowners control much of the borderland and have protested the taking of it by eminent domain — a strip of borderland in New Mexico known as the Roosevelt easement gives the federal government free rein.


All along that 60-foot-wide ribbon of the land that runs the length of New Mexico, the administration doesn't have to negotiate with land holders or states to build the wall.

The Department of Interior, which is responsible for the Roosevelt easement, transferred ownership to the Department of Defense for three years. In order to use the DOD funding to pay for the wall, the DOD then declared the border fence a "military installation," according to the Army Corps.


"The impacts of this crisis are vast and must be aggressively addressed with extraordinary measures,” said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in a statement following the transfer last month.


The wall can't easily be undone, and the Sierra Club initially won an injunction preventing its construction while its case against the Trump administration proceeds through the courts. But the Supreme Court in July lifted the injunction, allowing construction to move forward.


A federal judge in the El Paso litigation ruled Friday that the administration's national emergency declaration violates federal law. That judgment and the decision in the Sierra Club case could determine whether construction continues to move forward.

A judge in 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule on the Sierra Club lawsuit in mid-November;


Construction of the 46-mile stretch in New Mexico began in August and is slated to be complete in October next year.


Lauren Villagran covers the border and can be reached at lvillagran@elpasotimes.com.