Conservation groups team up to study border wall’s effects on Arizona wildlife corridor

Oct 10, 2022, 4:45 AM
(Sky Island Alliance Photo)...
(Sky Island Alliance Photo)
(Sky Island Alliance Photo)

PHOENIX – Two conservation groups are using remote cameras to study the southern border wall’s impacts on wildlife in Arizona’s San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge.

Sky Island Alliance and the Wildlands Network installed cameras throughout the refuge in June to determine the wall’s effect on wildlife behavior and movement, according to a press release

The study focuses on storm drainage gates that open during monsoon season and how effective they are as wildlife crossings.

“The flood gates may offer some of the only crossing points for large mammals in this 70-mile stretch of wall, so it is vitally important to understand the types of species using these openings and how frequently they do so,” Wildlife Project Manager Eamon Harrity for Sky Island Alliance told KTAR News.

Harrity explained the region is a significant ecological corridor to Arizona’s wildlife.

The 2,369-acre refuge stretches along the border and is considered the most extensive wetland in the southwest by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wildlife – including javelinas, mountain lions, white-tailed deer, mule deer and bobcats among others – rely on the area for sustenance, which has been split up due to the wall established under former President Donald Trump’s administration. Habitat connectivity is vital to the biodiversity of a region.

“The springs and wetlands located in the Refuge and just south of the border in Mexico represent vital wildlife habitat as the availability of water is often a limiting factor on wildlife’s ability to move and find food or shelter,” Michael Dax, the Wildlands Network’s western program director, told KTAR News.

Harrity added: “Animals on both sides of the border in this region need to move freely in search of food, water or mating opportunities and the wall has severed the landscape from about Sierra Vista to the Guadalupe Canyon just a couple miles from the New Mexico border.”

Cameras were set up every 500 meters in a gridded array across the refuge. The groups use the motion-activated photos of animals to count the crossings, according to the Sky Island Alliance website.

The study also uses video cameras to document animal behavior toward the flood gates, which are 1.7 meters wide.

Over the first month of the study, the cameras caught more than 48,000 photos of more than 20 mammal species, but only 9% of wildlife at the gates crossed the border, according to the website.

The groups intend to monitor the region for three years when gates are both open and closed. They plan to pull the cameras out in June 2025.

With the acquired data, the two conservation groups can determine whether the flood openings work as effective wildlife crossings or if there needs to be recommended actions. When the flood gates are closed, the only way through the wall is through 8.5-by-11 inch openings for small wildlife, according to the website.

“If we learn that large mammals can cross the border through open flood gates, we can create wildlife pathways all along the U.S.-Mexico border to help them reach vital food and water,” Harrity said in the release. “It’s a simple policy choice to open these flood gates and help species like mountain lions and black bears find their historic migration routes once again through the wall.”

Dax noted that with an operation so intensive with the number of cameras and data points, having multiple groups combine efforts makes a big difference.

“Running a project like this is time intensive and includes regularly checking cameras, swapping SD cards and batteries, uploading and cataloging photos, running various analyses and eventually writing reports,” Dax said. “Having the additional capacity and expertise of multiple organizations if hugely beneficial to managing this project.”

The San Bernardino collaboration is an expansion of a Sky Island Alliance project that started with 58 cameras in March 2020, which began before the construction of the wall.

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Conservation groups team up to study border wall’s effects on Arizona wildlife corridor