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Coyotes to coatis: Sky Island Alliance releases 90 day results for their Border Wildlife Study

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Quinn McVeigh | The Daily Wildcat

View of Patagonia Lake lying about 20 miles north of the U.S. and Mexico border

After about 90 days of tracking wildlife in the lower Sky Island region of southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico, Sky Island Alliance, an environmental nonprofit in Tucson, has identified 71 species in the range of border wall construction.

Bobcats, black bears, badgers, coyotes, coatis, pronghorn antelope, hawks, harriers and javelina; these all are emblems of just how biodiverse this area is, and all of them have been identified within the Sky Island Alliance Border Wildlife Study

The Trump administration has dodged dozens of laws to continue border wall construction. This is impeding on wildlife refuges and public lands such as the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge, the Coronado National Memorial and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, which was the “last free-flowing river in the desert southwest,” said Louise Misztal, Sky Island Alliance’s conservation director, in a recent webinar.

The southern area of the Sky Island Region near the border is an extremely biologically diverse area. The organization looks to give the public a proper understanding of what wildlife exists in the area and what level of biodiversity the public could possibly protect through opposition to Trump's border wall. 

“Our research is focused on identifying what the wildlife community is that depends on these mountains and these open corridors today,” explained Emily Burns, program director at Sky Island Alliance, in the recent webinar. “We want to ask the question, ‘what species are present in this landscape,’ we want to document them so that we can share this information quickly with the public about which animals are at risk from this major habitat fragmentation event.” 

To do this, Sky Island Alliance has partnered with Patagonia Area Resource Alliance and Naturalia A.C. to set up and monitor motion-sensor cameras along a stretch near the U.S. and Mexico border.

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All cameras are within 3 kilometers of the border on both the U.S. and Mexico side. Among 58 camera points, over a million photos have been taken which have captured anything from vegetation blowing in the wind to even a wildfire. Others though have captured insects, birds and mammals roaming through the areas. This has included 71 separate identified species and more which are still in the midst of being identified by Sky Island Alliance staff and volunteers.

A major focus of the Border Wildlife Study, according to Burns, is tracking large mammals that inhabit the Sky Island Region. 24 different species of mammals have been identified thus far according to the Sky Island Alliance website post, 90 Days and 71 Species at the Border

Burns said in the webinar that the Sky Islands have the “most species of mammals anywhere in North America” with a mix of temperate and tropical species. 

The ranges for many of these mammals, such as the grey fox, the raccoon and mountain lion, will be split almost in half with the persistence of border wall construction, Burns explained in the webinar. Others, like the coati, the javelina and the hooded skunk which have much smaller ranges in the U.S. and larger ranges in Southern and Central America, could have their smaller populations cut off from the larger whole. 

In addition to the mammals, Sky Island Alliance has identified 39 bird species, 7 insect species and several species of lizards, according to the website post. 

Despite misconceptions about the abilities of birds to just fly over a border wall, some of the identified species may not have such luck. For example, Burns explained in the webinar that the elf owl, which has been spotted in the Huachuca Mountains, the Patagonia Mountains and in the San Rafael Valley, is very hesitant to fly too high. 

Burns also explained that insects could also be affected because of the water drainage used to make concrete for the wall. Of course, any devastating effects on the insect populations can affect animals further up the food chain.

For all of the wildlife identified in the study, there could be catastrophic effects alongside the continuation of the border wall. According to Michael Bogan, an assistant professor of aquatic ecology at the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment, there are three primary concerns associated with border wall construction. 

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The first concern is the presence of a physical barrier preventing animals from moving back and forth within their habitats. 

“Anything that’s larger than three-and-a-half inches wide and doesn’t fly very high is physically stopped by the wall,” Bogan said. “So that would include all kinds of large mammals and small mammals and reptiles, you know some of the things like turtles, some of the larger lizards, even Gila monsters might have trouble getting through the wall.” 

Bogan explained that in order to have the most “genetically healthy” populations for many of these creatures, it is important to have movement between the borderlands. For many species, the only way that populations are maintained is if animals can move from one area of the borderland. An example of this is jaguars. 

“In the case of the jaguar, we don’t have any breeding jaguars in the U.S. All the jaguars we have are from Mexico or from these larger populations down south, so if you put up the wall, then our jaguar population in the U.S. disappears,” Bogan said.

The next concern that Bogan identified is how the wall may affect the flow of water. He explained that as the wall continues to be built across what seems like dry washes and streams, sediment and organic materials will build up creating dam-like obstructions. 

“Any time you put in an obstruction or a dam of any sort, that’s going to change how water moves and how nutrients move through these systems,” Bogan said. 

When the wall is built over a constantly flowing river like the San Pedro River, Bogan explained that this could have detrimental effects on aquatic species such as large fish and turtles. 

The third issue that Bogan identified is the production of cement, which is pulling large amounts of water from nearby water sources. 

“Compared to the amount of water that Tucson uses it’s small, but in some of these remote locations like in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, there’s not very much water anywhere on the landscape,” Bogan said. 

Bogan explained that through the construction of the border wall, there is a risk of losing our “ecological heritage.” There is also the risk of cascading effects in regard to the loss of wildlife, potentially throwing nature out of balance. 

“If we lose the jaguar and the jaguar is no longer eating as many deer, what does that mean for the deer populations in the area, what does that mean for the grasses that the deer eat,” Bogan said. “All those connections, we don’t know what those impacts are.”


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