Post-Trump, wildlife passages along the border wall keep narrowing

As construction continues, U.S. and Mexican conservationists work together to preserve remaining corridors.

In late 2020, Emily Burns watched in dismay as construction crews graded new roads and blasted off mountaintops, hustling to finish new border wall in southern Arizona before Donald Trump left office. Burns is the program director at the Sky Island Alliance, an environmental nonprofit focused on the mountains of southeastern Arizona and northeastern Sonora, Mexico. Each new wall section threatens the habitat connectivity that the region’s wildlife — from jaguars to pronghorns — needs to thrive. “It was really painful to watch,” Burns said. “We felt like the tide was supposed to be turning, and yet that wasn’t happening.”


In March 2020, Burns and I drove along a 30-mile stretch of the border while she installed wildlife cameras for a border wildlife study. When I called her in June to ask for an update on Borderlands conservation, she sighed audibly. “Just hearing that makes my heart hurt,” she said.

Nearly three years into the Biden presidency, conservationists’ hopes that his administration would usher in a new era for the Borderlands are fading. Meanwhile, however, conservationists in the U.S. and Mexico have worked together for decades to protect habitat and wildlife corridors in the Sky Islands, and those alliances are gaining strength.

“IN MANY WAYS, the border is a physical problem, especially for us ecologists, but also it’s such a powerful social tool,” said Zach Palma, the Mexico projects manager for the Sky Island Alliance and a former park ranger at Coronado National Memorial southeast of Tucson. The wall blocks wildlife, he said, while the border itself impedes the human connections necessary to protect the ecosystem.

Conservationists on both sides of it have worked hard to overcome that obstacle. The Sky Island Alliance works with Mexican NGOs like Profauna A.C. (A.C. stands for asociación civil, a type of nonprofit) and builds relationships with the ranchers and ejiditarios — members of agricultural collectives — who are the de facto land managers in much of northern Sonora. Sky Island Alliance has hired biology graduates from rural Sonoran universities to talk with sometimes-skeptical ranchers about wildlife and conservation. Several ranches have since switched to rotational grazing to help prevent overgrazing, replanted native species, or built water-retention structures to ease the impacts of drought. Some ranchers have become educators within their own communities, sharing knowledge with neighbors, friends and family. Profauna is also working to create a complete database of Sky Islands flora and fauna.

“Both governments are contributing very few resources to the environment” in the Borderlands, says Mario Cirett-Galan, an ecologist for Profauna. “On the other hand, we have a lot of support from NGOs. That collaboration is allowing us to get a lot done on the border.” In August, Cirett-Galan and other conservationists were elated when one of Profauna’s wildlife cameras in northern Sonora captured an image of “El Jefe,” a jaguar last seen nearly seven years ago in Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains. Jaguars have been nearly driven extinct in the Borderlands by human encroachment, including wall construction, but El Jefe’s reappearance suggested that it is still possible for the species to move between Arizona and Sonora. 

“Both governments are contributing very few resources to the environment.”

MEANWHILE, conservationists are girding for new battles. In July, the Department of Homeland Security updated its border “remediation” plan, announcing that it would use already-appropriated money to continue construction and installation of stadium lights, including in protected areas such as Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge and San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Burns said the artificial lighting is “horrifying” for birds and other species that use these areas as migration corridors and whose survival depends on darkness.

The 30-mile stretch of border that I visited in 2020 crosses the San Rafael Valley and is one of only two major wildlife passageways along Arizona’s 372-mile border with Mexico. (The other is a 62-mile segment across the Tohono O’odham Reservation west of Sasabe; smaller gaps that persist elsewhere may become important migratory corridors now that so much of the area has been walled off.) In the San Rafael Valley, the border is marked only by a vehicle fence, and the wildlife cameras the Sky Island Alliance placed along it documented 114 different species or taxa — yet more proof of what’s at stake, said Burns.

One species, however, was notably absent: humans. There were 73,000 camera detections, but those that weren’t wildlife were mostly cattle and livestock.  Less than 2,000 were related to people, and the majority of those showed law enforcement agents and construction workers; since the U.S. government installed a series of surveillance towers 160 feet or so tall across the San Rafael Valley beginning in 2019, few migrants attempt to cross there. Even Burns was surprised by the results. In one of the most militarized landscapes on earth, there are still wild places worth fighting for.

Sarah Tory is a freelance journalist and a former correspondent for High Country NewsWe welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.