Border wall worries wildlife biologists

Myles Traphagen, borderlands program coordinator with the Wildlands Network, recently toured the area where construction workers are putting up an 18-foot steel barrier in Santa Teresa. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA TERESA – A day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, a Mexican wolf slipped across the border from Chihuahua into New Mexico and roamed through a region where a new section of border wall is now under construction.

“The wolf had a gap in the fence, and it was able to get back to Mexico,” said Myles Traphagen, borderlands program coordinator with the Wildlands Network. The nonprofit organization works to preserve wildlife corridors in North America, including those that span the Mexican border.

The endangered Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, was wearing a GPS radio collar that allowed biologists to track the young male’s movements. The U.S. and Mexico have been working on a wolf recovery effort for decades.

“The intent being to recover ideally a binational population of Mexican wolves with constant flow from one side of the border to the other,” Traphagen said. He recently visited southern New Mexico to retrace the wolf’s path. “What this wolf shows, definitely wolves need this connectivity and seek it.”

The Mexican wolf is just one of the large mammals that conservation groups are concerned about as a new barrier goes up in Santa Teresa.

“It’s a political symbol. It’s a campaign promise this administration made and is hellbent on making good on, and it’s unfortunate that wildlife becomes collateral damage,” said Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces.

Bixby’s group is a part of a coalition organizing a protest in Santa Teresa today. He said a border wall prevents animals from “moving across the landscape and finding the water resources, the food and the mates that they need to survive.”

Wolves, jaguars and black bears are among the animals whose habitat includes large swaths of borderland.

“There’s no way one country, one state can provide what healthy populations need. Collaboration is a must for recovery,” said Juan Carlos Bravo, director of the Mexico Program for the Wildlands Network.

Bravo works on restoring wildlife corridors in northern Mexico where some animals need large territories to roam.

“Jaguars won’t recover a reproductive population in the U.S.,” Bravo said. “It will not happen if there’s a border wall in between.”

And the isolated population of black bears in Mexico in the “sky island” region will decline without access to mates in the U.S., according to Bravo.

The Department of Homeland Security issued a waiver of a variety of environmental, natural resource and land management laws in February to expedite construction of the new section of border barrier in Santa Teresa.

But U.S. Customs and Border Protection “will implement sound environmental practices as part of the project covered by this waiver,” said CBP spokesman Roger Maier.

“CBP frequently works in coordination with Fish and Wildlife, USDA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service and many other organizations to ensure the protection of the variety of ecosystems throughout the U.S. Border with Mexico,” Maier said in an emailed statement.

Conservation groups remain concerned that walling off areas used by wildlife won’t prevent human or drug smuggling but will harm efforts to rescue and recover endangered species.

“This borderline here, this is our political line. It’s definitely not the biological line,” Traphagen said.

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