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

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Front Page - WORDS AND PHO­TOS BY KRISTA SCHLYER

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...

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