Can a border wall ever truly be removed?


It’s been 20 years this month since the Berlin Wall was dismantled, marking the beginning of the end for the Iron Curtain that once separated Eastern Europe from much of the western world. But according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, some of the region’s wildlife still hasn’t forgotten the man-made boundary that interrupted their historic habitat. The findings of European scientists could have implications for America’s own southern border wall. 

Between Germany and the Czech Republic, where an electrified fence and armed guards once barred the passage of wildlife and people alike, a series of parks and nature preserves known as the Green Belt now safeguard forests and wildlife. Most animals take full advantage of the Green Belt, but one species, the red deer, refuses to cross the invisible line where the fence once stood. 

Data from radio-collared deer and the observations of wildlife biologists have shown that, with very rare exceptions, the German deer stay in Germany, and the Czech deer stay out. The deer have apparently passed down a sort of cultural memory of the barrier so that populations on either side of the former fence refuse to cross. That means the two populations are no longer sharing their genes with each other. And as the Journal article points out, the deer’s propensities are keeping them from taking full advantage of the Green Belt, “one of the biggest ecological projects in European history.” 

In the United States, some 650 miles of wall have already been built between the U.S. and Mexico. The wall, ostensibly aimed at preventing undocumented immigration from Mexico to the U.S., has been repeatedly shown to be a dismal failure at blocking human traffic. But the wall has done far too good a job at keeping wildlife from traveling through its native habitat.

Among the species that have been stymied by the wall are relatively common animals like jackrabbits, deer, javelinas and mountain lions, and even toads and snakes. Native birds such as quail and owls have been shown to be unwilling or unable to fly over the 15- to 20-foot-tall barrier as well. Also presumably blocked – but much harder to observe, as they are already so rare – are endangered cats such as the ocelot and jaguar (see Discovery Channel video ). In areas of the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, U.S. wildlife has even been cut off from the life-sustaining waters of the Rio Grande.

Conservation groups and wildlife lovers have pushed for more wildlife- and habitat- friendly border protections, such as vehicle barriers, remote surveillance, and increased patrols. Meanwhile, decades of efforts to preserve and restore wildlife corridors between Mexico and the United States are being undermined or destroyed. (To learn more, check out photos, videos, blogs, and other materials at the Borderlands RAVE site from the International League of Conservation Photographers.) 

At some point, political realities will change – as they ultimately did in Eastern Europe – and much of the U.S.-Mexico wall may be dismantled. (Some can probably never be brought down, as it has been built directly into protective flood levees.) But the evidence from the German-Czech border suggests that the impacts of the wall may last long after the concrete and steel bars are removed. It will almost certainly be too late to save the dwindling populations of the rarest species, and it may continue to affect even the most common. 

Recent action in Congress suggests that the appetite to spend billions of dollars to construct a wall that does more harm than good may be dwindling. But there are no plans yet to dismantle the 650 miles of wall that have already been built.

There is some hope offered as well by the Wall Street Journal article on the European wall:

‘...there are signs that cross-border traffic may pick up. "Our data showed that the animals behaved very traditionally," says Mr. Sustr. "The former border was in the minds of the animals. But some of the young animals are searching for new territory. They are more and more deleting the border behavior that was there before."’

Let’s hope that North America’s wildlife won’t have to wait 20 years or more for similar good news.

Berlin Wall for Wildlife
Matt Clark
Matt Clark
Nov 09, 2009 02:06 PM
Thank you Cat! This great commentary speaks volumes to the very real unintended consequences and collateral damage that the border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is resulting in.

There is a serious need for the federal government to get moving on environmental mitigation, monitoring and adaptive management in order to avert serious long-term ecological impairment and degradation.

There are ways we can aid certain species to cross the border while maintaining security. For instance, vehicle barriers in combination with remote cameras (SBInet) would allow for more wildlife to move while maintaining operational awareness/security. In areas where walls have already been built, installing gaps in specific wildlife corridors could be beneficial. Also, "doors" that allow smaller wildlife to cross while still preventing people from crossing, and maintaining/planting trees and cacti for low flying birds are other measure that should be experimented with. Facilitated migration of animals may ultimately be needed to avoid complete genetic isolation and to enable wildlife to be able to shift their ranges in response to climate change. Such measures will be necessary if we want healthy populations of wildlife. We can't afford to wait until the Bush-era wall on the Mexican border falls in order to begin undoing the damage that has been done.