Wildlife at risk along U.S.- Mexico border fence

Otero Mesa Grassland by Stephen Capra

By Scott Nicol, Co-Chair, Borderlands Team

Of the countless bison that once roamed North America, only five herds now remain, with a total population that is less than 5 percent of their historic numbers. One of the last herds crosses back and forth between the boot heel of New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

These bison are a critical part of the ecosystem that they inhabit, and their presence is vital for maintaining the grasslands in their natural state.

Border walls now cut across the Playas Valley, where the bison roam. These walls are Normandy-style “vehicle barriers,” with cross bars that are too high for bison to leap. One small gap remains that the herd can pass through, but if Congress enacts legislation to build more walls, this too may be closed.

On the outskirts of El Paso, the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park consists of 372 acres of native wetland habitat that has been painstakingly restored. The park is adjacent to the Rio Grande, situated along a stretch of the old, winding channel in which the river flowed before it was straightened and channelized. 216 avian species, including 39 species of conservation concern, utilize the park. Rio Bosque is one of the few places where one can imagine what the El Paso area might have been like when the river wound freely through the mountains and desert and had ample flow to support rich wetlands and big cottonwood trees. But the border wall has interrupted this rebirth of nature. Here Homeland Security has erected “pedestrian fencing,” 18-foot-tall steel mesh panels set on a concrete foundation. It cuts off the wetlands from the river, preventing the movement of species and diminishing the park’s value as habitat.

Any other federal project would have to take into account environmental impacts such as these, but border walls are above the law. To block lawsuits by the Sierra Club and others, Congress passed the Real ID Act, which gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the power to waive any law, environmental or otherwise, that might slow the erection of border walls. Former Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff waived 36 federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Today 646 miles of wall slice through our southern borderlands. With no need to comply with environmental laws, walls fragment habitat set aside for endangered ocelot in south Texas and for Sonoran pronghorn in Arizona. Construction has caused tremendous erosion in the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area, and walls have acted as dams, causing flooding in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Legislation requiring more walls will almost certainly come up in the new Congress. Sen. Jim DeMint has repeatedly introduced an amendment that would require around 350 miles of new “pedestrian” border wall, at a cost of $4 million to $7 million per mile.

The Sierra Club has consistently opposed environmentally destructive border walls, and has challenged the constitutionality of Real ID Act waivers.

Get Involved

To learn more and to join the efforts of the Borderlands team, visit http://sierraclub.org/borderlands