Environmental activists and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel have voiced their concern about the barrier’s deleterious effect on a natural wildlife corridor linking northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S. mountain ranges known as the “Sky Islands.” They fear that a fence will stop the movement of wildlife and disturb the fragile ecology of the region. In a stretch of territory that includes 40 mountain ranges, scores of living species from both southern and northern climes are found, including the jaguar and a parrot of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains, as well as the Black Bear and Gray Wolf of the U.S. Rocky Mountains.
“Bisecting this area with an impermeable barrier such as a double reinforced wall or fence will have a devastating effect on these species,” notes Matt Skroch, a wildlife biologist and executive director of the environmental group Sky Island Alliance. “If they go ahead and build it, we can say goodbye to jaguars in the United States,” Skroch adds.
Posing a direct threat to long-established migration routes of many animals, scientists are convinced a barrier would be disastrous for the biological diversity of the region. “The only living things a wall won’t stop are people,” notes Finkelstein. People who are in dire economic straits will not allow a physical barrier to stop them from entering this country, despite the fact that they more than likely will be working menial jobs that pay minimum wage, if that.
Of all the big cats, jaguars are the least studied. While some tidbits of information do come from examining jaguars in the wild, most of what is known about the creatures has been learned by studying captive animals. Wild jaguars are difficult to study because observing them is a rare occurrence.
The jaguar (Panthera onca) is a New World mammal belonging to the Felidae family and is one of the four “big cats” in the Panthera genus, along with the tiger, lion and leopard of the Old World. Jaguars are the largest and most powerful feline found in the Western Hemisphere.
Jaguars and the leopards seem at first glance to be nearly identical, but do in fact show marked differences. Both species have distinctive builds and differing coat patterns. In comparison with the leopard, the jaguar is larger and much stockier.
Primary jaguar habitats include tropical rain forests and swampy grasslands of Central and South America. In damp forest habitats, jaguars roam close to rivers, streams and lakes. They are fond of water and are notable as felines who enjoy swimming.
Their distribution ranges from the southwestern United States to south central Argentina. Cattle ranchers in southern Arizona have reported seeing jaguars as recently as 2004. These rare sightings of juvenile males probably coming from a Mexican population near the headwaters of the Rio Yaqui in east-central Sonora, about 130 miles south of the border, are not believed to be part of a resident population in Arizona but transients from established groups in northern Mexico.
Widely used for symbolic purposes in contemporary culture, the jaguar is the national symbol of Guyana and is featured on that country’s coat of arms. It is also used as a product name, most notably for a luxury car brand and a professional football team.
Major threats to jaguars include deforestation, increasing competition with humans for food, and ranchers, who do not hesitate to kill the cat when it preys on livestock. Where adapted to the prey, jaguars eat cattle as a large portion of their diet. This willingness to take livestock has in the past induced some ranch owners to hire full-time jaguar hunters.
Throughout Latin America, vast areas of wilderness are being cleared. Human encroachment permanently alters ecosystems by cutting down forests and disrupting hunting patterns that resident cats have established. As more areas are opened up for development, jaguars directly compete with humans for food.
In the past, this beautiful animal has fallen victim to the fur trade. Beginning around 1900, large-scale hunting and export of jaguar pelts greatly reduced the population. However, competition for food and habitat looms as a greater threat to jaguars today than does demand for their pelts.
The greatest threat to the survival of jaguars in the United States comes not from land-use questions but from the border itself. In the wake of 9/11 and a growing immigration problem, congressional representatives and federal agencies alike have proposed walls, light corridors, and roads along the U.S.-Mexico border, which, if carried out, would stop the movement of jaguars and other wildlife.
In much of Latin America, jaguars are facing extinction, but despite that fact, some countries list them only as threatened because of the relatively large numbers that survive in rainforests. Belize has the world’s only national park specifically dedicated to their preservation.
Due to its small population of roughly 250,000 people, much of Belize remains pristine, if not downright impenetrable (the Mayan word for “muddy” is “beliz”). The Central American country has earned worldwide acclaim as an ecotourism destination. Wildlife sanctuaries and unexplored wilderness areas make Belize unique among Latin American nations.
Endangered species are vigorously protected here. Jaguars roam free in Belize’s Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve. Notwithstanding the Preserve’s reputation as a jaguar sanctuary, the animals are rarely seen; however, you can easily spot jaguars at the Belize Zoo, which is situated not far from Belize City. Jaguars can be seen in the wild in Belize at the Pico Bonito National Forest, which is situated among towering peaks in the Nombre de Dios Mountains.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources considers the jaguar threatened, meaning it may face extinction in the near future. Loss of many parts of its range, including virtual elimination from the creature’s historic northern habitat, as well as increasing fragmentation of the remaining range, has contributed to the jaguar’s threatened status.
Jaguars are protected in the United States under the Endangered Species Act. Once ranging from west Texas to central California, jaguars today are found in this country only in southern Arizona, and their existence there is precarious.
Current conservation efforts focus on trying to convince ranch owners on the need to conserve the animals and on promoting ecotourism as a way to make money from conservation-minded people while saving wildlife. The jaguar is an “umbrella species”one whose home range and habitat requirements are sufficiently broad that, if protected, would result in the protection of numerous other animal species of smaller ranges.
An announced plan for aggressive law enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border is intended to bolster homeland defense, prevent illegal immigration and block illicit narcotics routes. The U.S. Border Patrol admits that aggressive enforcement measures may indeed result in serious environmental impacts that are nonetheless deemed acceptable when done in the name of border security.
The measure passed by Congress and signed by President Bush envisions double-barrier fencing along parts of the border in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, which fencing would be topped with bright lights. In many wilderness areas, the new fencing would replace patchy, ineffective barbed wire barriers.
Supporters of the fence argue that it would enhance border security by deterring illegal immigrants from trying to cross into this country from Mexico and help guard against use of border areas by terrorists. “We must come to grips with the fact that our border patrol agents need a fence on our southern border where we face infiltration by members of terrorist organizations,” observes U.S. Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican. For their part, Democrats charged Republicans with trying to use the immigration issue to attract votes in the 2006 U.S. Congressional elections.
The bill calling for construction of a border fence is imbued with politics. Republicans were looking for an issue to try and use against Democrats; the GOP leadership settled on a fence. However, gauging initial reaction to passage of the Secure Fence Act, Republican leaders in both houses of Congress may have miscalculated.
State and local elected officials, border residents, law enforcement personnel and opinion leaders have denounced the 700-mile-long “fence to nowhere,” calling the idea of erecting a physical barrier between the U.S. and Mexico “silly,” “ludicrous,” “ineffective,” “ugly,” “divisive,” “impractical,” “stupid” and “unworkable.”
If a fence were to be built, jaguar conservation efforts would suffer. The proposed barrier runs directly through the region where jaguars have been spotted north of the border over the past 30 years. A shy animal that prefers moving around under the cover of darkness, jaguars could not disperse northward if a fence and associated lighting structures were built. Such impediments would halt their migration into the United States.
One thing that can be said with certainty is that a fence would have a minimal impact on reducing undocumented human migration into this country. Not only will migrants go through, over, under or around it to work in the United States, but approximately 40 percent of undocumented aliens enter through legal points of entry and simply remain past the expiration dates on their visas. No physical barrier can stop that from happening.
But it would unquestionably cause havoc. William Radke, manager of the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge near Douglas, Arizona, believes a fence “would have a negative effect on everything from the insects that would be flying around the bright border lights instead of pollinating cacti, to the birds that eat insects, right up to the large predators, including jaguars.” Snakes, turtles, wild turkeys and roadrunners also would be prevented from crossing, and the lights would interfere with birds’ ability to navigate by the stars.
Radke is particularly concerned that the barrier would cut off the highland trails used by jaguars crossing the border from Mexico and repopulating the Peloncillo Mountains east of Douglas after decades of absence. Jaguars evidently are attempting to move north because their once wild habitats in Mexico are filling up with people.
U.S. Interior Secretary Gayle Norton has expressed reservations about the plan to put up fencing, roads, sensors, cameras and stadium-style lights stretching for 249 miles in southern Arizona. Norton instead favors a low-slung vehicle barrier that would prevent motor vehicles from crossing into the U.S. from Mexico but would not impede the passage of wildlife. She comments: “I’m troubled by the whole concept of placing a fence at the border, especially when you’re talking about something that could affect wildlife’s ability to migrate.” Wildlife-friendly vehicle barriers in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona have proven to be effective in stopping smugglers of people and contraband from entering the United States.
In the heart of the Sierra Madre Mountains in the Mexican State of Sonora, a small population of jaguars has withstood decades of persecution by ranchers. This area has likely served as the source for the handful of the big cats that have, against long odds, shown up in Arizona over the last decade. With some conservation initiatives now being implemented in Sonora, there is hope that the continent’s largest feline may survive on the northern frontier of its range.
To be successful, feline conservation work being undertaken today in Sonora will have to be linked to progressive management strategies in areas to the northand to the idea that the imaginary demarcation line which separates Mexico and the United States should not be an actual physical barrier. If all this seems confusing, do keep in mind New Mexico’s state motto Crescit eundo, which translated from the Latin means it grows as it goes. Whatever that apparent profundity means.
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