WILDLIFE ON THE BORDERLINE
The barriers along the US–Mexico frontier carve up habitats and age-old migration routes, impacting on a host of species
At the southern end of Arizona’s Huachuca mountains, the United States meets Mexico on a rocky precipice where a sweeping vista unfolds. To the east, the international boundary reaches towards the horizon through an ocean of pale winter grasses where jackrabbits hide and great horned owls hunt. To the south, the deep grooves of the upper San Pedro River watershed stretch across the border, extending into the foothills of the Huachucas as secret passageways for bobcats and black bears. To the west, the immense San Rafael Valley sprawls southwards as a sea of golden grass where shy pronghorn antelopes roam. And all around, dark mountain ranges tower like islands in the lazuli desert sky, their deepest shadows sheltering the footsteps of jaguars.
This landscape radiates a wild calm, but beneath the surface are two conflicting realities: the borderlands region encompasses one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in
North America, while rapidly becoming one of the world’s most militarised and divided places. Over the past decade, just over 1,000km of border wall have been constructed along this 3,200km-long frontier. Most construction has been exempted from environmental laws that would have protected critical habitat and migration pathways for endangered species. And in January, the new US president vowed to expand border wall construction and to intensify militarisation of this land.
Yet from a steep mountainside overlooking the border, geopolitical tension drifts away on a fresh westerly wind. This immense landscape remains the kind of special space where wildlife can thrive, and humans can find that unique brand of respite particular to vast open spaces.
STANDING IN THE WAY
Seeking out some of this wild solace, I hike a trail from the Montezuma Pass in Coronado National Memorial, a protected area managed by the US National Park Service, through the mountains to the border, where a monument was placed in the 1850s when the United States bought this land from Mexico under the Gadsden Purchase.
Such monuments were erected all along the border, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. But today this particular one carries a weighty importance – it is situated on one of the few migration pathways remaining to a suite of transnational grassland species.
The US–Mexico border, a line drawn in the sand by two nations, is fundamentally defined by a natural boundary at the overlap of the temperate and tropical zones. Here the north and south meet and mingle, sharing an assortment of trees, cacti, wildflowers and grasses that don’t coexist anywhere else. Natural borders like this are unusual places, prone to biological extravagance.
Prior to the Gadsden Purchase, this land was claimed by Mexico, and before that Spain. In the millennia that preceded Spain’s conquest of North America, it was the domain of native people; and before that, it belonged to the jaguar.
Strength, adaptability and stealth earned the jaguar its position as an apex predator in the Sonoran Desert. “Jaguars evolved here in North America before they moved south into the tropics. So in a very fundamental sense they belong here,” says Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. And somewhere out within this grassland sea, or padding through shadows in the river corridor, the jaguar still roams. Only now the big cat is fighting for its existence in an arid world at the boundary of two nations.
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ONE OF THE MOST BIODIVERSE ECOSYSTEMS IN NORTH AMERICA IS RAPIDLY BECOMING ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST DIVIDED PLACES CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: The best hope for the continued survival of bighorn sheep is open travel corridors; The border wall has...