San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona, USA – Biologist Myles Traphagen flips through the footage captured by his cameras of wildlife and shakes his head in disbelief: a javelina, a bird watcher, two US Border Patrol officers – that’s it.
Here, in one of the most remote corners of the US-Mexico border, the desert teems with life as a vast array of species roam the mountains and river basins that stretch between the two countries. .
But Traphagen says things changed a few months ago when government contractors arrived with heavy machinery, searchlights and dynamite, blasting through nearby mountains and delicate desert ecosystems to build a border wall of nine meters high.
“That’s all we’ve had since the last time I came here – just a little bit of javelin,” says Traphagen, sitting at the base of a river basin in the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in the southeast. from Arizona.
“It’s unprecedented, not to have a few mountain lions, bobcats, deer, turkeys, tons of stuff, I was going out here and there would be five or six hundred pictures… Now there is has almost nothing.
As the final days in office of US President Donald Trump recede, construction crews work day and night in a last ditch effort to follow through on the Republican President’s main campaign pledge to build a wall along the southern border from the United States at 3,220 km (2,000 miles).
But even with President-elect Joe Biden promising to stop construction on the first day of his new administration, scientists and environmentalists fear a permanent environmental scar has already been created.
They say the border wall could have long-term evolutionary consequences in one of the most biodiverse regions in North America, home to 93 endangered and threatened species. In rugged areas like the one around San Bernardino, once largely untouched by people, these effects may be felt more than anywhere else.
“It’s all a great experience,” says Traphagen, the Borderlands program coordinator for the Wildlands Network. “It’s an engineering experiment and it’s also an ecological experiment because we haven’t collected any baseline data to determine what the many effects could be on many aspects of the border wall.”
More than 700 km traveled
So far, the Trump administration has completed 727 km (452 miles) of its $ 15 billion border wall, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and much of that amount has grown on land formerly protected by the federal government, as well as in shelters and on Indigenous lands.
In order to get construction done quickly – and bypass the red tape and potential lawsuits associated with building on private land – the administration used a provision in a 2005 law that allows federal authorities to waive laws to ” ensure the rapid construction of certain barriers and roads in the United States. border”.
CBP said rapid construction is important for border security, but it also means builders are going virtually blind, without any environmental impact assessment.
Trump praised the administration’s success in building the barrier ahead of a final visit as president to the US-Mexico border on Tuesday. “As you know, we have finished the wall. They might want to expand it. We have the expansion underway. It was a huge success, way beyond what anyone thought, ”Trump told reporters before leaving for Texas.
He credited the wall for stopping the flow of illegal drugs, as well as preventing people from entering the country without the necessary immigration permits. “The wall has made a huge difference on the southern border,” Trump said.
Habitats are shrinking
Traphagen says wildlife captured around the area by cameras has dropped 90% since the wall was built here.
But wildlife migration is not the only concern. San Bernardino was established in 1982 to protect four endangered and threatened fish species that live there, primarily the endemic chub Yaqui and Yaqui topminnow.
But the natural artesian wells that have fed their wetland habitat for thousands of years have been largely drained by pumping groundwater. Contractors use the water to mix the concrete for the barriers.
Their natural habitats are nothing more than puddles of water and artificial wells had to be installed in the refuge to ensure that the fish did not die. Such pumping has occurred in other border areas such as the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where crews last year uprooted saguaro cacti so old that some were taller than the barrier itself.
US Fish and Wildlife Service officials have repeatedly warned the Trump administration of the dangers of pumping groundwater to build the wall, even calling mining along the border “the greatest threat to endangered species today.” endangered in the southwest region ”.
Yet their warnings have not been heeded.
Meanwhile, 16 km (10 miles) away, the sound of dynamite explosions and the roar of excavators and bulldozers echoes through the Guadalupe Canyon as workers plow the mountain. Large piles of rubble and six-meter (20-foot) rocks are thrown into a nearby washhouse. Floodlights illuminate the mountains at night while crews work around the clock.
The surrounding mountain ranges provide critical habitat for species like the ocelot and the last North American jaguars, which cross the border to mate.
Laiken Jordahl, who works in border areas for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said watching the explosions was like “a punch in the gut.”
“The construction that we are seeing now, spreading through these rugged mountain corridors, is so damaging,” Jordahl told Al Jazeera. “I mean, we’re talking about thousands of pounds of dynamite exploding in critical habitats for endangered species. We have been talking about erosion resulting from this project for decades.
The full extent of the damage, however, remains largely unknown.
CBD is among a number of environmental, civil rights and indigenous groups that have launched lawsuits against the Trump administration and urged Biden to halt construction of the border on the first day of his administration.
Jordahl and other environmentalists say dismantling sections of the wall will be crucial in preventing what could be decades of ecological damage. But when asked in August if he was going to tear down the wall, Biden did not respond directly, saying instead, “There will not be another leg of the wall built under my administration.”
Even that promise can be difficult to keep, as it could force the new administration to pay to break contracts with private companies – while potentially undermining Trump’s fierce political base.
Meanwhile, as Traphagen walks along the border wall, which by the afternoon sun casts long shadows over the desert he has strived to preserve for decades, he hopes they will soon be able to assess the damage.
“The ecological effects will continue to multiply over time the longer this border wall stays in place,” he says. “We need to be able to stop and see, ‘What have we done?’ – and move towards a better solution.