Hundreds of miles of U.S.-Mexico border wall have been built over the past few years -- across the southern borders of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas
For locals in those areas, the normally quiet desert landscape has sounded more like a construction zone, especially recently.
“They're starting to blast away and build a road up the side of a very steep mountain,” Zoe Fullem, community science manager for Sky Island Alliance, said in mid-January. She is at the border at least once a week in Arizona.
Blasts, running water lines and cement trucks spotted the desert in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Fullem is with the Sky Island Alliance, an organization documenting the impact border wall construction is having on species that have been there for generations.
“We realized that we needed to take on the task of documenting the biodiversity of the wildlife in the borderlands region here for the proposed border wall,” she explained. “We officially launched the study in March 2020.”
Now, nearly 60 cameras are scattered across the desert, monitoring wildlife 24/7.
“Each camera block of our study has eight cameras. So we have one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and they're all placed along a grid,” she said. Fullem said they’ve now detected over 100 species of wildlife with these cameras.
“They detect motion and heat through infrared,” Fullem said. And they capture more than just wildlife. “I just saw a cement truck go in there, it’s catching dust.”
Fullem and volunteer Brit Rosso have watched as construction vehicles drive through these roads, along the vehicle barrier fence already in place on the border. One mountain dissected by the border has been cleared on the U.S. side to make room for construction workers and trucks putting in the larger bollard fencing, more commonly seen near ports of entry.
“Every time I come out, I see more habitat destruction,” Fullem said.
Since January 2017, about $15 billion has gone into constructing more than 700 miles of new border wall system. 453 miles has already been completed as of early January 2021, according to statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“All of the conduits, the migratory paths of birds, mammals, people...all of the movement follows north, south,” Ben Wilder, desert ecologist and associate research scientist at the University of Arizona, said.
Wilder said the wall cuts right through the biological region.
“That U.S.-Mexico border just bisects a truly arbitrary line,” he said. “The impacts are at the watershed level, they're at the population level, they’re at the individual level.”
For wildlife, the wall could mean a physical barrier between them and a water source.
“It’s a completely arbitrary line for them, so they might have shelter on one side of the border and access to water during a specific season on the other side,” Fullem said.
All of this research and observation is part of the process for the study.
“Nobody has any real, true scientifically documented information on the wildlife migration, what wildlife lives here, what wildlife is migrating north and south of here,” Rosso, volunteer with Sky Island Alliance, said.
Last week, President Joe Biden issued a moratorium to halt construction of the border wall. The Biden administration terminated the national emergency declaration that allowed Trump to reallocate defense funds to be used to build the border wall. Trump reallocated the funds after Trump struggled to get funding through Congress for one of his top policy goals. The issue of using defense funds was hotly-contested in federal court.
As the future of the border wall remains up in the air with a changing administration, Fullem and Rosso continue to document the species they see both north and south of the border, and how they’re impacted by construction in the desert.
“We need that data to compare what wildlife we were seeing pre-construction and post-construction and how that changes,” Fullem said.