Why a Border Wall Could Mean Trouble for Wildlife

Why a Border Wall Could Mean Trouble for Wildlife

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As the fight continues over President Trump’s demand to extend the border wall between the United States and Mexico, one thing is clear: Whatever the wall’s effect on immigration might be, it would have an impact on the environment of the borderlands.

About 650 miles of border wall already exist along the 2,000-mile boundary between the two countries. Most of it has been built on federal land where the terrain provides no natural barrier. Mr. Trump has called for a 1,000-mile wall, which would extend farther across land that includes important habitats for wildlife.

A Customs and Border Protection policy says the agency “will integrate environmental stewardship and sustainability practices into operations and activities.” But Congress has given the agency the power to waive environmental protections like the Endangered Species Act. Such laws could require the government to produce an in-depth environmental impact analysis of a new project, develop less-damaging alternatives and perform environmental monitoring after construction.

A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection was unavailable because of the partial government shutdown, a result of the political standoff over funding for the wall.

“Light pollution is turning out to be a real problem for nocturnal animals,” he said. “You’re pulling at the fabric of these ecosystems.”

Of course, there are illuminated buildings in many places. But Dr. Wagner said there was little difference between a border wall and a Walmart. Either way, he said, “It’s slaughter.”

Construction would disrupt several pieces of land that have been designated part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, as well as other treasures like the National Butterfly Center, a private nature preserve along the Rio Grande in Mission, Tex. Construction into the 100-acre sanctuary could begin as soon as next month, splitting off some 70 acres from the American side of the site.

After an outcry from environmentalists and local officials, Congress voted last year to protect one environmental jewel, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,100-acre “ecological crossroads” for migratory birds near McAllen, Tex., by refusing to appropriate money that would build the wall through it.

But environmental advocates say the areas that will go unprotected are vast, and the losses to biodiversity will stretch far beyond the thin line of the border. As Texas Monthly put it, “Federal Border Wall Funding Spares Wildlife Refuge, but Not Much Else.”

Because of the richness of the environment along many stretches of the border, the area draws tourists for hunting and fishing — and, to a great extent, ecotourism.

Birders have spotted more than 500 species in the four counties that make up the Lower Rio Grande Valley. A 2011 study from Texas A&M University estimated that bird watching and other forms of environmental tourism brought more than $344 million in economic activity to the area, and some 4,400 jobs.

The authors of the article in Bioscience, including Dr. Flesch, said the government should protect the “cultural value” of the borderlands. “National security can and must be pursued with an approach that preserves our natural heritage,” they wrote.

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