HIDALGO, Texas (Border Report) — A nonprofit U.S. animal conservation organization has teamed up with a Mexican counterpart to document and track wildlife whose habitat has been split by a border wall that is being built through a coveted wildlife preserve in southeastern Arizona.

The group Wildlands Network has partnered with biologists at the nonprofit organization Cuenca Los Ojos, on the Mexican side, to set up a bi-national wildlife monitoring project to determine how the construction of 24 miles of new border wall through the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge impacts endangered species like jaguars.

Border Report: Live border cameras

Myles Traphagen, Wildlands Network borderlands program coordinator based in Tucson, Ariz., told Border Report that his organization helped to secure 40 trail cameras from the Phoenix Zoo, which are being mounted in the area, as well as on the Mexican side of the border wall to track animal activity day and night. The cameras are not mounted on the U.S. side of the wall because of ongoing construction by contractors hired by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build 24 miles of new border wall through this eco-sensitive region where mountains, desert and prairie all meet.

Myles Traphagen is borderlands program coordinator for Wildlands Network. He is seen on Nov. 8, 2019, at the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“They’re in a situation where they’ve built the wall and they can put the cameras up and won’t get harassed but I can’t do that on my side,” Traphagen said via phone this week.

Since January, Traphagen and Cuenca Los Ojos have photographed and filmed thousands of animals, such as javelina, bobcat, mountain lions and turkeys, traveling in singles or groups, foraging for food. Cuenca Los Ojos even captured a 10-second video of a deer that approaches and sniffs the border wall from the Mexican side but is unable to cross.

Traphagen said with about 15 of the planned 24 miles built through this valley, the number of animals are now starting to decline as they apparently are avoiding the heavy machinery noise and 24-hour construction activity and bright lights.

“We have observed a ten-fold decline in the last six weeks,” Traphagen said on Tuesday.

He added that locals also are very concerned about the additional construction workers, who come from other parts of the country, and could bring the deadly coronavirus.

“The coronavirus did not stop construction. In fact, they increased by three-fold under the cover of COVID-19,” Traphagen said.

A March 16 CBP news release stated that the current wall being built in Cochise County, Ariz., is replacing previous vehicle barriers in the area and “will also include the installation of a linear ground detection system, road construction or refurbishment, and the installation of lighting, which will be supported by grid power and include embedded cameras.” A public commenting period “on potential impacts to the environment, culture, and commerce, including potential socioeconomic impacts, and quality of life” was held through May 15, the agency said.

Animals that frequent the area of the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge where the 30-foot-tall bollard wall is being built in Arizona. (Courtesy of Wildlands Network)

Environmentalists say this documented decrease in species in the area is proof of how this wall is dividing and reducing the habitat for many animals, including the endangered jaguars and black bears, which cross through the Neotropics of the Rocky Mountains at this juncture where the Chihuahua Desert, mountains and prairie land all meet.

Traphagen describes the area as “the meeting ground of the North American continent” and he says animals that pass through here have no regard for the boundary of these two countries and need to roam to access fresh water and food.

Photos taken on Nov. 8, 2019, of the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Arizona show when the first panels of border wall were first put up through the valley. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Scott Nicol, an environmental activist from South Texas, said the four-inch gaps in the metal bollard border wall prevent many species from crawling through.

“For wildlife, that’s an impenetrable barrier. People really don’t have much trouble building a ladder and getting over it. But if a deer, or a coyote or a jaguar comes upon it, they’re stuck,” Nicol said. “That completely blocks their movement. And if you cut their territory in half they don’t have enough to survive.”

Scott Nicol, an environmental activist, is seen on June 3, 2020, in front of an 18-foot-tall border wall at the Old Hidalgo Pump House and World Birding Center in Hidalgo, Texas. Behind the wall are trails that are no longer accessible to the public. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Standing in front of an 18-foot-tall border wall on Wednesday, which was built a decade through the middle of the Old Hidalgo Pump House and World Birding Center, Nicol said this type of border wall — which the Trump administration wants to complete throughout the Southwest border with Mexico to keep undocumented immigrants from illegally entering the United States — is drastically hurting wildlife and preventing citizens from enjoying nature along the border.

Nicol said this area, which leads to trails owned by the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, is now inaccessible. And with the hum of U.S. Border Patrol helicopters patrolling the area above, and National Guardsmen in CBP vehicles guarding the wall on the ground, very few people now frequent the area.

Nicol said he would hate to see the pristine western lands of Arizona affected the same way.

Traphagen says that area is a crossing ground for jaguars who travel from the Peloncillo Mountains, a few miles east of the San Bernardino Refuge, to the Sierra San Luis Mountains south of Animas, N.M., which bridge the great Sierra Madre Occidental Mountain range of Mexico.

He said once the wall is completed “then 93% of jaguar-critical habitat will be blocked off.”

“Bisecting crucial wildlife corridors and cutting off wildlife migration routes is not political. They are very real and damaging actions that will have far reaching impacts and ramifications for the wildlife of the borderlands for generations to come,” Traphagen said.

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