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A Ray of Hope for Wildlife and People in the Borderlands

Wildlands Network Attends Borderlands Expert Roundtable Hosted by Sen. Bernie Sanders

Earlier this week, Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva invited a group of borderlands environmental experts and members of local social justice and immigrant advocate groups to a roundtable discussion on borderlands issues led by Sen. Bernie Sanders in Nogales, Arizona. Bernie was there to listen to firsthand accounts of people’s experiences working and living in the border region and learn more about the disastrous consequences a border wall would have on wildlife who depend on a permeable border for survival.

Wildlands Network’s Borderlands Program Coordinator, Myles Traphagen, poses after the roundtable discussion with Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Joanna Foote Williams of the Kino Border Initiative. Photo: Courtesy of Myles Traphagen

Wildlands Network’s Borderlands Program Coordinator, Myles Traphagen, participated in the discussion alongside other Tucson-based borderlands advocates, including Dan Millis and Sergio Avila of Sierra Club, Laiken Jordahl and Regina Romero of the Center for Biological Diversity, and Kevin Dahl with the National Parks Conservation Association.

The day had auspicious beginnings as an unseasonably heavy storm blanketed Nogales with a layer of hail deep enough to incite the words “snow day!” from a schoolchild. As climate change poses increasing threats, such rare events are more commonplace in the borderlands, and when amplified and compounded by other human activities in the borderlands, they have the potential to be especially disruptive to wildlife. These were the kinds of serious environmental concerns the group hoped to discuss.

But first, it was important for the group to understand how the human social dynamic of the borderlands has shifted in recent years. We couldn’t hope to forge an equitable future in the borderlands for both wildlife and people if we didn’t understand both groups’ current realities. Bernie wasted no time and pulled no punches when he asked the first question to the group: “How have things changed on the border in the last two years since Trump was elected?”

Wildlands Network’s Borderlands Program Coordinator, Myles Traphagen, and other environmental and immigrant advocates discuss borderlands issues at a roundtable discussion with Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), right. Photo: Courtesy of Myles Traphagen

There was no shortage of hands raised by the dozen or so Nogales citizens who told firsthand accounts of their experiences, which ranged from racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies of children on playgrounds to long wait times at the border due to a major shortfall of staffing at the ports of entry. One senior woman expressed her frustration that even though her family has resided in Nogales for six generations, she feels she does not have freedom of movement in her own homeland. As she astutely stated, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” alluding to the fact that Arizona was the last state admitted to the Union just over 100 years ago, though her family’s roots in the region predate Arizona’s annexation by another 100 years.

The border wall is not only separating human families, but is also separating animal families, too.

The border-state Senator (Vermont is, indeed, a border state) then shifted the focus to the region’s wild residents, discussing how a border wall would tragically affect the native wildlife who need room to roam on both sides of the border to find food, mates, and habitat. Myles brought to life an example of the immediate and obvious physical barrier by showing the group a javelina skull that measured 5 inches across, paired with corresponding photos of the newly constructed “bollard fence,” which has gaps of only 4 inches between the bollards.

“The border wall is not only separating human families, but is also separating animal families, too,” Myles said, showing photos of javelina families, whose babies can fit between the bollards and then become separated from their parents. “The borderlands of southern Arizona and New Mexico serve as crucial corridors to maintain connectivity for charismatic wide-ranging carnivores like jaguars, Mexican wolves, and black bears, all of whom reside on both sides of the border.”

Javelina family near Tucson, Arizona. A border wall presents a barrier to animals like javelinas who need room to roam to find food, water, and mates. Photo: Wildlands Network

Myles also quoted Mexican ecologist Dr. Rurik List, telling Senator Sanders and the rest of the attendees that “a border wall will rewrite the biological history of North America.” Bernie responded in rhetorical agreement, asking, “A border wall would have catastrophic effects on wildlife, would it not?” The entire room nodded in sober agreement.

However, despite the grim topic of immigration and the border wall, Wildlands Network left the meeting with a bit of hope in the knowledge that there are decent, rational, and compassionate elected officials like Bernie Sanders, Raul Grijalva, and Nina Turner who will continue to listen, care, and do all they can to protect the unique environment of the borderlands.

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