Don't Fence Me In
by Joe Zentner
The United States-Mexico border region is home to many endangered bird and animal species, including various owls, Mexican gray wolves, black bears, cougars and jaguars, whose inherent need to move around over a large area is essential to their long-term survival. According to persons who are knowledgeable about biological diversity, the jaguars living today in southern Arizona probably came over the border from Mexico. Similarly, “Mexican gray wolves, peninsular bighorn sheep and other endangered species need to cross and re-cross their borderland habitat often,” observes Michael Finkelstein, director of the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. The border region is an extraordinary source of biological diversity because it is shaped by a variety of ecological forms, including deserts, forests, plains, mountains and river valleys.
Environmental groups are concerned that the new border fence, signed into law in late October of 2006 by President George W. Bush, which provides for a 700-mile-long fence built along the border with Mexico, will adversely affect the species in the region, isolation the groups north of the border from the southern ones. It is intended to stop the flow of undocumented workers entering this country. As of April 2009, over 600 miles of the fence had been completed.
Environmental activists and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel 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 feared that the 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.
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 felines 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. 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 extending walls, erecting light corridors, and adding more roads along the U.S.-Mexico border, which, if carried out, would further 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 found 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 of 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.
Customs and Border Protection spent $2.4 billion between 2006 and 2009 to complete 670 miles of border fence, and the vast majority of that was single-layer — one line of fencing designed to keep either pedestrians or vehicles from crossing into the United States, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
Plan for a double-layer fence to be built were rejected in 2013 by the Senate. The proposed barrier ran 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 had been built. Such impediments would have halted their migration into the United States.
William Radke, manager of the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge near Douglas, Arizona, believes such a fence “would have [had] 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 was particularly concerned that the barrier would have 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.
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 north—and 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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