Peter Huck

The barrier, erected on the back of security issues, has devastating implications for wildlife.

In the photographs taken by motion-sensitive cameras set in a remote wilderness area near the Arizona-Mexico border in late 2004, the big cat crosses the frame, its powerful, dappled body and long curving tail lit by flash. The images, collected by the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, depict two male jaguars, and possibly a third, out of four individuals, the first documented in the United States since the last known cat was shot in 1963.

Now the jaguars, which evolved in North America, then spread south, are coming home, padding out of the harsh deserts of Sonora, north-west Mexico, into Arizona and New Mexico via “sky islands” — mountain wildlife corridors that straddle the border.

As the jaguar range shrinks in Sonora, the biologically-rich sky islands — where desert, alpine and tropical influences converge — have become a cross-border refuge. But the cats, first photographed in 1996 and protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, may become unintentional victims of the paranoia about illegal immigration and national security, as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) moves to seal the 1,952-mile border.

This month, the DHS erected an 11-km stretch of steel fence through the Altar valley, an ocean of grass amid sky islands created by the Baboquivari, Atascosa, and Tumacacori mountains in Arizona’s Buenos Aires national wildlife refuge. The 3.6 metre high barrier, just one of many sections rapidly being erected, also dissects the restored habitat that is home to endangered pronghorn antelope.

“It is very close to where one jaguar has been known to live for at least 10 years,” says Michael Robinson, who monitors jaguars for the Centre for Biological Diversity (CBD). Cutting the animals off from Mexico “is potentially catastrophic for the species’ recovery prospects in the northern part of its range.” The American Society of Mammalogists warns that jaguars can survive only if they are allowed to roam across the border. Steel fences would strand existing jaguars in the U.S., prevent others from increasing the nascent population, and limit the cat’s gene pool.

Sky islands are a vital choke point in the Wildlands Project, intended to protect wildlife by linking refuges and wilderness areas, from the Arctic to Latin America. “If there is any place we can point to on this continent to show how fragmentation of habitat can destroy species, this is it,” says Kim Vacariu, the project’s western director.

Further east, in Texas, a 110-km fence proposal stalks the Lower Rio Grande Valley national wildlife refuge. Restored for $100 million, it is North America’s most biologically diverse area, home to rare ocelots and half of U.S. bird species. “We estimate anywhere from 60 per cent to 75 per cent of the refuge will be either directly or indirectly impacted,” says Nancy Brown, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a bureau of the Department of the Interior. The fence could harm a $150 million-a-year ecotourism trade.

Little over a decade ago, the border remained largely remote and empty. This changed in the 1990s when the U.S. built fences in border cities such as San Diego and El Paso, pushing illegal migrants into the wilderness and delicate ecosystems have been trashed.

Political issue

All of which has made illegal migration into the U.S. a hot political issue. In 2006, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, directing the DHS to build 700 miles of fence, 300 miles of vehicle barriers, and “virtual” walls using integrated surveillance systems without the need to construct a physical wall. The $7.6-billion project is a windfall for contractors.

Many people support vehicle barriers — which allow people and animals to pass — or virtual fences, but border communities are enraged by a solid barrier, touted by the Bush administration as a security measure against terrorism that will also curb drug smugglers and migrants.

In a recent statement, Mexico’s Environmental Minister Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada said the fence threatened shared ecosystems. Warning that Mexico might take the issue to the International Court of Justice, he advocated “green corridors,” without roads, for wildlife — a vision already entertained by various schemes.

Down on the San Pedro river, the DHS is ready to roll with its fence. President Bush’s latest folly might disappear one day, but it may be too late for the ocelot and the jaguar. — ©Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2007