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SOURCE: National Geographic

DATE: March 30, 2020

SNIP: The Sky Island region of southern Arizona and New Mexico is a natural wonderland, one of the most biologically diverse parts of North America, where thousands of animal species live and roam across the U.S.-Mexico border.

A patchwork of valleys, hills, and mountain ranges act as corridors to allow creatures such as jaguars, ocelots, black bears, bighorn sheep, and coati to move about the region. Hundreds of species are found here and nowhere else in the U.S., including jaguars, colorful birds called elegant trogons, lowland burrowing tree frogs, and brown vine snakes.

But while the nation is focused on fighting the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration is working to expand the border wall through the region, cutting off critical animal migration corridors. The Department of Homeland Security this month paved the way to build more than 175 miles of new walls, much of it in remote, mountainous terrain.

To start building the new sections, potentially within weeks or months, the Department granted waivers on March 16 to allow construction crews to not comply with 37 different laws, including the Endangered Species Act.

Even as businesses have closed and workers told to stay home, wall construction continues, and review periods for environmentally sensitive projects, including oil leases on federal property, are not being postponed or extended.

Besides the newly approved sections, more than 100 miles of wall are actively under construction elsewhere in Arizona, including in natural areas like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

It’s “an ecological disaster in the making” for jaguars and other species that need to cross the border to survive, Louise Misztal, executive director of the Sky Island Alliance, a nonpartisan environmental group in Arizona, says. Though the nearest breeding population of jaguars is in northern Sonora, Mexico, roaming cats regularly come north of the U.S. border, where they were once widespread.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol, granted the waivers earlier this month to build about 20 sections of wall in the two states, including more than 90 miles in Arizona, representing a quarter of its southern border. The taxpayer-funded work will cost well over $3 billion, and will be completed by contractors working with the Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Defense. The funds were diverted from the Pentagon’s budget after President Donald Trump’s controversial decision in February 2019 to declare a national emergency over border security.

Typically such a massive undertaking would require numerous ecological studies and adherence to laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act. But under the 2005 Real ID Act, the head of the Department of Homeland Security may waive any law to build the wall.

New wall segments consist of 30-foot bollard-style barriers, made of steel beams with four-inch gaps too small to allow many animals through. They also impede low-flying birds, including the endangered ferruginous pygmy owl. Building such walls in rugged areas is difficult and expensive, there are relatively low rates of illegal crossings, and other technologies like motion-sensors and cameras are already in use.