Engineers Human and Otherwise, and Walls of Extinction

Last week I hiked out at Black Marsh, a remarkable suburban ecosystem a few miles north of Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay. On my way back to the parking lot, I heard a loud splash and was delighted to see a beaver near his impressive lodge.

He was joined a minute later by his mate, and they swam around, bumped noses, splashed, and generally made themselves known. Other than humans, beavers are arguably nature’s most striking engineers, and at Black Marsh, as in other aquatic ecosystems, are integral to the health of the marsh community.

An engineer splashes and glides past his lodge at Black Marsh in Baltimore County in early February 2019

Unlike beavers, human engineers often alter the environment in ways that harm all other living things. When Trump first pitched his anti-immigrant wall along the Mexican border, there were a number of articles highlighting how walls fragment and divide critical ecosystems. But these discussions have faded–although the peril posed by walls in sensitive habitats has not. This blog is a tap on the shoulder as we think about the wall going forward. Below is a sampling of what has been written about walls and ecosystems.

In a December 6, 2018 article for Scientific American, Margaret Wilder began simply–“Nature is fluid–walls are not.” She points out that in July 2018, more than 2500 scientists signed a letter opposing the waiver of federal and state environmental laws to build the wall. The letter states that “the wall threatens some of the continent’s most biologically diverse regions…”

Humans benefit from ecosystems not only for their intrinsic beauty and capacity to connect us to something larger than ourselves and the human-engineered environment, but because they also provide recreational and employment opportunities for people living in biologically diverse environments.

Jaguars are among the large mammals that could be driven to extinction by Trump’s proposed border wall (photo by C. Burnett, Wikimedia Commons)

In November 2018, more than 170 conservation groups sent a letter highlighting the vast destruction of wildlife and ecosystems that would be caused by the wall. After commenting on the major conservation areas that would be sundered by the wall–the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and National Butterfly Center, Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area–and declaring their “steadfast opposition to the damage a border wall across these and other parts of Texas would cause to birds, other wildlife and their habitats,” the authors point out the major negative economic impact it would render.

These nature preserves provide essential economic activity in Texas. According to a 2011 Texas A&M University study, nature tourism—primarily birding—contributes $463 million annually to the local economy. Located near several birding hotspots, the Alamo Inn B&B, for example, hosts more than 1,200 visitors a year. “Ninety-five percent of our guests are birders,” says innkeeper and guide Keith Hackland, who adds that his bird-watching visitors so far have come from 40 different countries and every U.S. state.

While the wall debate has lately focused solely on the way in which it symbolizes human division and intolerance, the disastrous impact that it would have on wildlife is being ignored. Human activities invariably have consequences on other living things—but in this case, the consequences would be immediate and far-reaching. It may be possible to undo much of the harm to humans that Trump’s misguided anti-immigrant policies have already had. But the building of miles of a tall, impenetrable barrier would cause irreversible harm to myriad non-human species and pose a real risk of driving many to extinction. In an article titled “Border Wall Will Deliver a Huge Blow to Biodiversity,” Sukanya Charuchandra, writing in The Scientist, reports that “more than 1500 species of flora and fauna will be at risk of extinction if a continuous U.S.-Mexico border wall is built.” The article quotes Jennifer Miller, a scientist at Defenders of Wildlife: “Debates about the border wall typically focus on immigration, economics, and national security, but the harm to Americans’ natural heritage is an outcome rarely discussed.”

Mexican Grey Wolf pup (Wikimedia Commons, author unknown)

An extended wall along the U.S.-Mexican border would adversely affect numerous threatened and endangered species, including jaguars, Mexican grey wolves, and some dwindling species of butterflies, according to a report from the Center for Biological Diversity titled “A Wall in the Wild: The Disastrous Impacts of Trump’s Border Wall on Wildlife.” Wilder notes that a wall would block large mammals from water, food, and mates, and that “25 species, among them the Peninsular bighorn sheep and the desert pupfish, will find their living habitats degraded and destroyed on over 2 million acres within 50 miles of the border. Based on actual findings from the nearly 800 miles of border fence that already exist, we know that it isolates in Mexico some birds who can’t fly over it, including the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl and many others. At a minimum, alternative designs should be seriously considered to include “virtual” walls of sensors and wildlife crossings.

The Ferruginous pygmy owl would be seriously impacted by Trump’s proposed border wall (photo by Dominic Sherony, Wikimedia Commons)

In an article titled “Up Against the Wall,” the National Wildlife Federation lays out the damage the wall would cause and features a striking photograph of javelinas blocked by an existing border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border near the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona.

During World War II—decades before the Endangered Species Act was envisioned– there was an opportunity to save one of the most magnificent and legendary birds of North America. But despite the efforts of the National Audubon Society and a young graduate student from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology named James Tanner, the last remaining site known to have a significant population of Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers was sold to a logging company that then used German prisoners of war to clear cut the tract, driving the birds to extinction. An article from Audubon titled “The Long Goodbye” notes that the lumber was used to build boxes used to ship tea to British soldiers.

Ivory Billed Woodpecker (John James Audubon, public domain)

One could argue that when the last vestiges of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker were driven to extinction in 1941 we didn’t know better–and while that argument provides no comfort it holds some truth. Now, however, there is no excuse. We do know better. And yet the pleas of conservationists who can help us find a better way to enhance border security without desecrating Creation are–ironically–voices in the Wilderness.

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