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On The Border

Photographers document the ecological impact of the barrier going up along the U.S.-Mexico border
The borderlands between the United States and Mexico contain some of the richest biodiversity in North America. In January, the International League of Conservation Photographers sent a team that included photographers, writers, filmmakers and scientists to document the ecological effects of the border wall. Road cuts through the 18,500-acre Otay Mountain Wilderness Area to facilitate wall construction east of San Diego, Calif.

As she watched a herd of bison jumping over a barbed-wire fence to cross between its habitat in the United States and Mexico, Krista Schlyer’s plan for a photo expedition began to take shape. The photographer had been on assignment in New Mexico doing a story about the transboundary bison herd, which spends time in both countries. Aware of how the wall going up along the U.S.-Mexico border was harming wildlife, ecosystems and local communities, she decided that to draw more attention to the issue, she’d enlist the help of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

For more than a year, the organization has conducted Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions (RAVE) to advance conservation around the world. The concept is that a group of photographers, writers and filmmakers go out for short periods of time to document an area and return with a thorough portrait of the issue or threat. In this case, the team included award-winning photographers like Pulitzer Prize winner Jack Dykinga, Kevin Schafer, Wendy Shattil and Roy Toft. In total, there were 13 photographers, three filmmakers and two biologists who went on the three-week trip.

“Most of the damage the wall is causing isn’t obvious,” explains Schafer, who helped create the RAVE concept and visited some of the fence areas in Texas last year. “We didn’t see animal carcasses all around, but we did see roads being carved through established wilderness areas and physical impact on a massive scale. I was aware that border fence construction was well underway and that if there was any hope of affecting policy, especially the abrogation of existing environmental regulations, we had to move quickly.”

What Schafer is referring to is one of the project’s goals, which is to reverse the REAL ID Act that passed in 2005 to speed up construction of the border wall. Under that legislation, the Department of Homeland Security was able to waive dozens of federal and state regulations, including such core environmental laws as the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, if they interfered with construction. In April, members of the RAVE group went to Washington, D.C., to debut an exhibit of their work and meet with legislators to show their support for the Borderlands Conservation and Security Act. If passed, the bill would revoke the authority that Congress gave and would require any future building to follow those environmental laws.

Along the wall in Sonoita, Arizona.

The massive fence, intended to deter illegal immigration, runs through wildlife refuges, national monuments and other federally protected areas. It will start just outside of San Diego and run, with breaks, to Brownsville, Texas. One chunk will cover nearly 350 miles, or nearly the entire length of the California-Arizona part of the border. Of major concern to many environmental groups is the effect it will have on wildlife that depends on open migration corridors for survival. For instance, the wall will divide an ocelot population in Mexico from a small, inbred ocelot community in Texas that conservationists say needs fresh blood to survive.

Schlyer, Schafer and others had already been to fence areas in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and had seen the effect of the barrier on migratory and endangered wildlife species. While many people in the U.S. may envision the border as barren, Schlyer says it’s anything but, with habitat and migration corridors for hundreds of endangered species, including the jaguar, Mexican gray wolf and Sonoran pronghorn.

“This is such a special location because it’s a subtropical area, which a lot of people don’t know,” Schlyer says. “Many of the species there don’t exist anywhere else. One of our main goals is to get people to see how amazing and incredibly biodiverse this region is by giving them a better picture of it, along with the damage being done from the construction.”

El Pinacate and Gran Desierto Biosphere Reserve, Mexico.

Many of the ecosystems found there are among the most rare in North America. The area is home to Arizona’s last free-flowing river, the San Pedro, some of the last undeveloped grasslands in North America along the New Mexico border, and the most diverse bird habitat in the U.S. along the lower Rio Grande River. This remote, wild land stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Since much of the landscape here remained isolated for so long, the ecosystems are relatively intact.

For this trip, the group started in San Diego and moved east along the border, staying in one location for three to five days on average. Those short lengths of time provided some challenges. Capturing images of animals proved to be a tough task despite spending hours in blinds and hiking deep into the desert. Schafer concentrated on wildlife, spending four days in blinds alongside water holes. The problem was that, in winter, animals don’t need as much water for survival as they do during the summer.

The Rio Grande marks the U.S.-Mexico border. There’s no fence or any sort of man-made barrier in this region yet.

“So I got almost nothing this way,” Schafer recalls. “I did come across a band of endangered pronghorn, but they ran away in terror because they’re still hunted illegally and are rightly terrified. Clearly, there are limits to the amount and quality of wildlife imagery you can capture on a short deadline.”

But the team had to keep moving if they were going to cover some 2,000 miles of travel in just a few weeks. Shattil spent her whole time working along the lower Rio Grande. She says one of the most remarkable aspects of the project was discovering how much local communities have done in the way of habitat reestablishment.

Ranchers and landowners in southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and the northern parts of Chihuahua and Sonora, Mexico, are working independently and together to protect areas where animals can replenish their populations by re-creating corridors that would allow them to go from one habitat to another. This is land where, after decades, one of the last remaining jaguars in the U.S. was photographed. These efforts, though, are threatened by ongoing fence-related construction. For Shattil, the challenge was telling that story in pictures.

Some of the animal and plant life found here exist only in this part of the U.S., including many tropical bird and butterfly species like the green jay, plain chachalaca and malachite. More than 500 bird species can be found in what remains of this habitat type in the U.S., exceeding any other area in the country.
Open north-south migration corridors are essential for the long-term survival of the many wildlife species that live in the borderlands, including jaguars, Mexican gray wolves, ocelots and Sonoran pronghorn, which are the focus of restoration efforts on conservation properties in southcentral Texas and Mexico.

“With imagery, if you have one picture that tells the story without having to explain it to somebody, that’s way more effective,” says the accomplished wildlife photographer. “My biggest challenge was coming up with the image that explained the impact of the wall on these wildlife communities. I wanted that ideal shot of an ocelot standing up and looking at the wall.”

Shattil didn’t get that exact image, but she did photograph one of the endangered felines. Her biggest hope is that the project creates more awareness among the general public about what’s happening to this environment. The plan is that the images will be used to enhance the reach of a coalition of groups and people working on the borderlands issue. Back in April, the exhibit on Capitol Hill was supported by a lobbying group of more than 40 people from around the country. Over the course of three days, they visited with 120 legislators.

The fence remains a hot political issue with supporters arguing that it’s an effective way of deterring illegal border crossers and using data that shows steep drops in crossings at places like Yuma, Ariz., which once was popular among immigrants entering the U.S. But critics cite a 2008 Congressional report that found the new fencing just shifts illegal crossing to other, more remote, locations. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, about 601 miles of the project had been completed in January. In December, then President-elect Barack Obama said he wanted to evaluate border security operations before he considers whether to finish building the fence under his administration.

The Borderlands RAVE group now is working to raise money to move their exhibit around the country and perhaps overseas. “Hopefully, we can just keep adding momentum to a movement that’s been going on for a while, but people haven’t been paying attention,” Schlyer says. “We all need to be aware of what’s being sacrificed.”

To learn more about the Borderlands RAVE and the International League of Conservation Photographers, including a blog that was kept during the trip, go to