Written by: Heather Clemenceau
The construction of barriers along borders is a hardly a new practice, from the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall to the present day. Aside from the existing 580 miles of wall between the US and Mexico, North and South Korea, and Israel and the West Bank are also separated by borders. Fences also separate Malaysia and Thailand, India and Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, China and Mongolia, and Botswana and Zimbabwe. These border walls do not merely impact people, but also have unintended consequences for wildlife by curtailing their movements.
Up until very recently Donald Trump’s idea for a wall on the U.S.–Mexico border has existed as little more than a psychosocial framework – a chest-pounding display for bully boys. There were certainly many clues that the totally unscripted, unrehearsed, and unedited Trump was hostile to animal rights and animal welfare issues prior to the election. He and his sons spoke negatively about animal rights advocates and he has affiliated himself with supporters of agricultural gag laws. Proving that not only people will suffer from “Trumpism,” the House Appropriations Committee has approved a 1.6 billion down payment on a wall that will help ensure that endangered animals are endangered right into extinction.
The United States Army Corps of Engineers has begun preliminary preparations for the construction of segments of a wall in several places along the border with Mexico. Immediately impacted is the 2,088 acre Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The federally owned refuge, established in 1943, is often referred to as the “crown jewel of the national wildlife refuge system,” and could see construction begin as early as January 2018. This will destroy the refuge, one of the top birding destinations in North America. In addition, the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the project will potentially impact 111 endangered species, 108 species of migratory bird, four wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, and an unknown number of protected wetlands.
A voyage across the US-Mexico border, stitched together from 200,000 satellite images, criss-crossing through private land, native territories, and the Rio Grande.
It’s certainly true that highways, railroads, canals, and other types of human-created infrastructures already harm wildlife. Knowing that, you may ask why border walls are different. While human developments continue to encroach on animal territories, most projects are constructed as part of an overall planning process where there is usually an attempt to minimize the impacts by federal or state laws. A border is designed to be impenetrable – for people certainly, but also for wildlife. International law doesn’t prelude the US from constructing a border fence, except when such construction would violate federal or international wildlife laws. The Sierra Club maintains that multiple Federal laws will need to be waived by Department of Homeland Security, in order to construct the remaining 1,400 or so miles of border wall.
National Environmental Policy Act
Endangered Species Act
National Historic Preservation Act
Archaeological Resources Protection Act
Safe Drinking Water Act
Noise Control Act
Solid Waste Disposal Act
Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act
Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act
Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
Farmland Protection Policy Act
Coastal Zone Management Act
Federal Land Policy and Management Act
National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act
Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956
Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act
Administrative Procedure Act
Otay Mountain Wilderness Act of 1999
California Desert Protection Act
National Park Service Organic Act
National Park Service General Authorities Act
National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978
Arizona Desert Wilderness Act
Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899
Eagle Protection Act
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
American Indian Religious Freedom Act
Religious Freedom Restoration Act
National Forest Management Act of 1976
Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act of 1960
Federal Grants and Cooperative Agreements Act of 1977
In order for a species to survive, populations need move about, travelling to various food and water sources and for seasonal migration. Climate change has made this mobility imperative for wildlife. There are many unintended consequences that result from preventing the natural movements of animals. Impenetrable fences impede this mobility and fragment habitats, isolate populations, cause genetic isolation and alter behaviours that may be important to the long-term survival of the populations or species involved. When populations are small, species need as much intermixing as possible in order to survive – smaller populations of already endangered animals will suffer without access to the varied genetics of animals blocked by the wall. Nocturnal animals can also be disrupted by floodlighting on walls, which interfere with their normal routines for feeding etc. Additionally, both poachers and predators can take unfair advantage of animals whose escape is prevented by border walls – some wily predators have learned to chase prey into fences. Since large carnivores and herbivores play particularly influential roles in the food chain, this can have a profound effect by cascading through the ecosystem.
Even fences that were created for the purpose of safeguarding one species usually harm others. Consider for instance, the consequences of the so-called dingo and rabbit-proof fences in Australia.
Designed to prevent dingos from predating sheep and keep other wild animals off farmland, the fences also separated the dingos from kangaroos, so there was a massive increase in the kangaroo population, whose expanded populations went on to compete with the sheep for forage. Like the proposed US border wall, the rabbit-proof fence basically cuts the continent in half. These Australian fences also affected the dispersion of plant seeds by preventing Emus (who eat the fruits of native plants) from travelling long distances, resulting in a loss of biodiversity of plant life.
Fencing to prevent disease transference from wild animals and livestock often resulted in devastating consequences as well. In the 1950s, fence construction in Kruger National Park restricted wildebeest to half of their original range, obstructing their migration to seasonal water sources and contributing to a population drop of 90%.
Two recent studies have shed even more light on the effects walls have on wildlife. A 2016 study published in the Review of European, Comparative and International Environmental Law found that “border fences can cause declines and even local disappearance of species.” Authors of another study in the journal PloS Biology found that border fences erected to prevent refugee migration “were erected as emergency measures with no environmental impact assessments.” and the authors went on to suggest that a “wide range of high-tech monitoring methods are now available that would allow selected sections of a border to remain unfenced, while still providing security.” the latter study focused on Slovenia where over 100 miles of barbed and razor-wire fencing have been erected along about one-third of the border with Croatia. A slew of mangled animal carcasses – especially red deer have been found caught in the coils of wire.
Even when walls are later removed, animals are often hesitant to cross the area where the former border stood. Red deer who were formerly separated by an electric fence that divided Communist Czechoslovakia from what was then West Germany now refuse to cross the border where the fence used to stand. Even though the areas is now forest, the deer still tend to stick to either the Czech or German sides and are essentially two separate populations of animals. This is an interesting example of social learning within the herds, since the electric fence was removed over 20 years ago and generally red deer don’t live beyond 15 years, so the currently living animals would never have encountered the electric fence
Given that the stated purpose of Trump’s wall is to keep people out, it is unlikely to include areas of passage for large herbivores or predators. So, leave it to Trump and the serially science-denying flat-earthers of the Republican party to exacerbate the current mass extinction emergency by regarding our ecosystem as merely a resource to be monetized and exploited. The wall will, if actually completed, severely undermine the Endangered Species Act and remove or block protections for imperiled species. This is one reason why Trump wants to kill off the EPA – so there is no environmental impact study on the wall. It’s a “silver bullet” that’s a politically expedient yet inevitably, a major ecological intervention.