Conserving border wildlife crossings

5 Jul

Wildlife don’t recognize international borders. They don’t read signs, they aren’t hip-deep in politics, they don’t create laws prohibiting movement, and they don’t build giant fences – the human act of pissing on their own territory perimeter thereby isolating themselves and keeping the ‘Others’ out.  Wildlife pass from place to place to find food, shelter, water, and mates. With increasing loss of and encroachment on their habitat, their options for life sustainment grow smaller, and biodiversity shrinks. Unfortunately, state and federal governments have no qualms about further loss of wildlife habitat with the mandated tall fences and the recent so-called ‘border protection’ bill.

The Fence (TM) is a long-standing political embarrassment and money glutton. Especially since the latest statistics reveal that fewer immigrants from Mexico and South America are illegally (and legally) crossing the border into the US. In fact, the tide has turned; emigration has increased from the US into countries south of the border; Americans and non-Americans.

What is more important, and damned frightening not just for wildlife but also people living in the borderlands, is the recent Borderland Protection (BP) bill. The legislation, introduced by Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, would override protections on lands within 100 miles of the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, handing unrestricted access to these areas to the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, the bill would override “36 environmental, safety and other regulations, including the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Antiquities Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Migratory Bird Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, the Fish and Wildlife Act, among others.”

The Fence affects only the southern US borderlands. However, the BP bill will impact the entire perimeter of the US:  the Redwoods, Joshua Tree, Channel Islands, Isle Royale, Everglades, Biscayne, Dry Tortugas, Glacier, North Cascades, Voyageurs, Virgin Islands, Olympic, Arcadia, Hawaii, Alaska, all the national seashores, and the Big Bend National Park in Texas. Many US citizens see this as a threat to our freedom and liberties, but it is a dangerous threat to all wildlife on both sides of US International borders.

Texas, a private company (Cemex), the US, and Mexico have partnered together to conserve a large area of the Chihuahuan desert on both sides of the border for wildlife corridors and habitat. Including a mixture of ecosystems -brush and mesquite desert, high desert grasslands, mountains, and sky islands – this area contains probably the greatest biodiversity of all North American desert lands. Wide swaths of untouched land on either side of the Maderas del Carmen range offer protected habitat and skies for land animals, resident and migratory birds. Unknown to many, small springs dotting the area south of the border also harbor endemic aquatic species. The jewel is that it is the first international wildlife conservation project of its size on the North and South American continents.  Evidence that two countries, and their respective political agencies, can cooperate for a common goal to protect wildlife for now and the future.

Wildlife biologists, ecologists and conservation specialists are beginning to speak publicly in support of conserving wildlife corridors next to and across the borders. Jon Beckman, conservationist with the the Wildlife Conservation Society’s North America program, recently wrote an opinion piece in an online issue of UT San Diego. His piece is reposted below:

The southern border region is one of the most bio-diverse areas in the United States and a crossroads for many carnivores. Today, the area is more widely known for the highly charged border politics involving people than for how those politics may affects the bears, jaguars, mountain lions and other wildlife that make the area home.

For hundreds of years, as national borders have been redrawn by various governments, these species have maintained a natural distribution across the region. A recent study provided insight into the critical role that movement corridors – the paths that wildlife follow to access seasonal resources such as various foods, water and mating opportunities – play in ensuring the persistence of bears and other large carnivores in this region.

The collaborative study, by the Wildlife Conservation Society and federal and state land and wildlife management agency partners, found that bears in the southern United States are more closely related genetically to endangered black bear populations in northern Mexico than to those in central Arizona and New Mexico. These data suggest that bears and other carnivores are likely dependent upon cross-border corridors to travel between the naturally, patchily distributed habitat in the region.

Corridors serve many species and purposes in the border region. Recent evidence suggests that jaguars and ocelots, for example, have begun to return northward from Central America and Mexico to reoccupy their former range in the United States. Other studies indicate that a number of species cross the border when times are tough (such as in drought years) and suitable habitat exists only on “the other side.”

The current debate about whether to continue or expand a border fence out of legitimate national security concerns, combined with changing land-use patterns that have led to increased road-building and urban sprawl in previously wild places, makes a conversation about how all of this will impact wildlife more important than ever.

The study showed that linkages across the border are essential in ensuring that bears and other species have access to habitat and resources, and to keep them from being genetically isolated from other subpopulations. Can we maintain such linkages in the context of a border fence without compromising immigration and national security goals?

The answer is yes, if we plan in advance. The border fence is not a homogeneous structure along its entirety, but is a collage of various fence types. For example, there is pedestrian fencing that generally is near dense human population zones and often represents a complete barrier for wildlife; and there is vehicle fencing, which is generally more permeable to wildlife movement.

There is opportunity for conservation scientists, Homeland Security representatives, land and wildlife management agencies and the engineering community to look at innovative ways to allow animals, but not humans, to cross border barriers. One solution may be a combination of permeable fences combined with intensive remote monitoring at crucial wildlife corridor crossings identified by field data.

The issue of habitat connectivity for wildlife at our borders is an important one and now is an ideal time to tackle this issue. What happens along the southern United States will likely set the precedent for similar fencing/border security activities that have recently been discussed for our northern border with Canada, where a variety of other important species that require large expanses of open land can be found.

Enforcing our immigration laws and protecting U.S. citizens is critical, but do we have to sacrifice wildlife and ecosystems to secure that protection? For years, the governments of Tanzania and Kenya have worked cooperatively to ensure the safe migration of millions of wildebeest and other species from the Serengeti across their shared border. Let us now work with Mexico and Canada to do the same.

How can you help? Contact your representatives in the House and Senate to voice opposition to the Border Protection bill, for both wildlife and people living in the borderlands. Support efforts by government and non-government organizations to conserve and protect wildlife corridors across both state and national boundaries. Sign petitions, make your voice heard. We are the people, yet people also have to represent the rights of wildlife so that they too may thrive on their own territories without borders.

Links for further reading:

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