SIERRA VISTA — The Trump Administration’s 30-foot-high pedestrian border wall will stretch across miles of Cochise County’s southernmost vistas of mountains and high desert plateaus marking the line that separates the U.S. from Mexico.
Construction has already begun through the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge (SBNWR) heading west to Douglas and in the Coronado National Memorial’s southern parklands, which was closed to public last month. Now, trees along the San Pedro River at the border have been flagged and staked for removal.
Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Homeland Security have yet to release any documents as to the wall’s design at the river or a beginning date of construction which could impact the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) mission to preserve it.
Though waiting on a release of documents under the Freedom Of Information Act, previously the Herald/Review received a letter sent to CBP Director Paul Enriquez from the BLM dated July 3, 2019 in which Scott Feldhausen, BLM Gila District manager, pointed out the SPRNCA was designated as a national conservation area in 1988 “to conserve, protect and enhance the riparian area” and all its resources from ancient cultural sites to wildlife.
“This unique ecological landscape provides a home to over 250 migrating bird species, 10 species listed under the Endangered Species Act as either threatened or endangered, 12 BLM sensitive species and 28 species of greatest conservation need,” he wrote.
He continued, “At this time, we have not seen any proposed design for the San Pedro River crossing. Based on field observations of the existing vehicle barriers (bollard and mesh), there could be reduced passage of sediment and debris through ephemeral drainage paths during seasonal flood flows. Currently, seasonal removal of the ‘Normandy’ style vehicular barriers has allowed the San Pedro River to maintain natural processes.”
Channel incision and increased erosion could result from a barrier which blocks water flow and sediment creating hydrological changes which could affect the functionality of the SPRNCA, its wildlife, as well as roads and trails adjacent to the river and downstream from the project particularly during times of high flow, he explained.
“We recommend the border barrier crossing be designed such that it is capable of handling large amounts of sediment and debris, minimize channel incision and erosion and reduce the hindrance of surface and subsurface flows,” Feldhausen advised.
Though he made no direct mention of wildlife migration in relation to the SPRNCA, he did for the areas east of Douglas and noted “21 threatened and endangered species have been identified as having the potential to exist within the project area. Five of these warrant additional attention.”
Jaguar, ocelot, Mexican wolf, Mexican long-nosed bat and Mexican spotted owl may be impacted by lighting and physical barrier construction and make “impermeable barriers that block corridors of movement for these species,” he stated. BLM suggested a design which “considers connectivity to the sky island archipelago to the north to provide valuable habitat” for migrating animals and many other species.
“The BLM stands ready to continue our cooperation and dialogue as CBP continues its design, construction, maintenance and potential future reclamation activities of the proposed border barriers,” he concluded.
On June 28, 2019, a more concerned letter was sent to Enriquez from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acting assistant regional director Jackie Parrish who stated, “Placing a pedestrian fence along 63 miles of the Arizona/Mexico border would adversely affect (directly and indirectly) many endangered, threatened and candidate species and migratory birds. Southern Arizona is one of our most biodiverse areas, harboring 878 known species along the border. Therefore, conserving overall biodiversity and unique ecosystems has certain implications.”
He, too, pointed out the impact to migratory wildlife to the point of affecting the genetic variability and reducing the species “long-term survival likelihood. Restricting movement would be particularly detrimental to migratory species with broad homes ranges and for those that rely on Mexico for their continued persistence in Arizona. He also recommended avoiding the migratory bird nesting season from Feb. 1 through Aug. 31.
Parrish went on to press the points of habitat loss, reduction, fragmentation and degradation, increased erosion, diminished water quality and the decrease in riparian and aquatic zones.
“Overall, increased human presence interrupts wildlife behavior that can lead to changed movement, foraging, hunting, water access, mating, rearing young along with other stress reactions all of which can impact fitness and survival over time. During rain events, the border barrier could act as a dam, capturing debris and backing up water flow,” he noted.
Artificial night lighting and ecological light pollution also affects natural wildlife behavior, mating, birthing and other activities across the spectrum of mammals, amphibians, arthropods and reptiles to the point of injury for some, he added.
He suggested remote electronic surveillance through integrated fixed towers for known wildlife corridors and leaving existing vehicle fencing in place.
“Studies show that vehicle fencing, in conjunction with other technology, can be as effective as bollard fencing in prohibiting illegal substance movement and human movement in some areas such as along the SBNWR,” he reported.
More room between the bollards will help some wildlife, like tortoises and turtles and reducing the height to “match the surrounding canopy height would alleviate threat to birds, bats and insect pollinators.”
He added a few more species to Feldhausen’s list — southwestern willow flycatcher, western yellow-billed cuckoo, northern Mexico garter snake, Gila topminnow, desert pupfish, Yaqui chub, topminnow and catfish, Huachuca water umbel and Cochise pincushion cactus – which inhabit the SPRNCA and the SBNWR.
In all, he sent 27 pages of recommendations covering the border wall projects across Arizona.
However, in August, the Trump Administration waived all environmental regulations for wall construction and rolled back protections of the Endangered Species Act, included the economic implications in listing a species and eliminated climate change as a factor for protecting habitat.