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By Michael J. Robinson,
Two years ago, along the southern border west of El Paso, a Mexican gray wolf loped north through the Chihuahuan Desert and into the United States. A few days later, unable to find a mate, he returned to Mexico.
Today, an 18-foot-high steel barrier could block his path. Sections of President Trump’s border wall built in recent weeks slice through 20 miles of this remote New Mexico desert, where a creature’s ability to traverse vast distances can be a matter of life and death.
Mexican wolves are one of the most endangered mammals on the continent, with just 114 in New Mexico and Arizona and a few dozen across the border in Sonora, Mexico. With a narrow gene pool, their long-term survival may hinge on crossing the border to find mates, just as they did for thousands of years.
Wolves are hardly the only wildlife threatened by the border wall. The new bollard-style barriers in New Mexico also obstruct the movements of kit foxes, cougars and ringtail cats. The walls fragment their populations and increase the risks of inbreeding.
That’s why the border “fence” vs. border “wall” debate simmering in Washington, D.C., during the government shutdown vexes anyone who’s seen a border wall up close. It’s a distinction without a difference. They’re the same thing.
Border lawmakers understand the grave threats that border walls pose to dozens of animals, including endangered species.
”A wall harms ecosystems, disrupts wildlife migration patterns, blocks vital wildlife access to food and water, and fragments wildlife communities,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said last month in a speech on the Senate floor. “Animals can’t go over or through the border wall. They’re stopped in their tracks. For many animals, fragmented habitat has led to their endangerment. Chopping up their territory pushes them closer to extinction.”
A fine example of where animals still roam freely is the bootheel of southwestern New Mexico, one of the most unvisited landscapes in North America. It’s hot, steep and dry. It’s also a richly biodiverse landscape.
A herd of wild bison wanders the playa valleys. Thousands of feet above, the only descendants of New Mexico’s original desert bighorn sheep patrol the edges of limestone cliffs. The bison and the bighorn sometimes cross the international border for grass and water.
To the west, a single jaguar prowls southern Arizona, a migrant from Sonora.
Jaguars evolved in North America before extending their range south to the tropics, only to be wiped out in their original range. Their ancient bones have been found in Nebraska, Tennessee and Florida, among other states. A federal trapper killed the last resident jaguar in January 1964 in Arizona, about 150 miles from the border.
In the decades since, several male jaguars have made it to the U.S. from Mexico. If a female appears, they could breed here and genetically bolster the declining jaguars in Mexico. Every inch of new border wall makes that less likely.
Science and reason have a hard time breaking through the twisted politics of the Trump administration. But the facts are irrefutable: Borderland wildlife will pay a terrible price if more walls are erected.
Some years ago, I awoke at dawn on a tiny patch of level terrain high in the Big Hatchet Mountains. A line of dark rain clouds scudded north from the Sierra Madres in Mexico, enveloping the dun-colored Animas Mountains 15 miles away.
The night before, around a small fire with a friend, the talk had been of jaguars ― the one reported in the foothills below by a Buffalo Soldier around 1916 and the possibility of another now roaming the same territory. The day yielded bighorn but no wild cat sightings.
More border wall construction won’t stop the life-giving rains. Natural potholes would still fill without bighorn to lap them, and the grasses would grow without bison to graze.
But the land would lose its grandeur without bison or bighorn. If we lose the chance to glimpse a jaguar or Mexican gray wolf, it will diminish the planet we share. We can’t let that happen.
Michael Robinson is a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity and the author of “Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West.” He lives near Silver City, New Mexico.