In the debates about the southern border, it is easy to overlook our native plants and animals, which cannot speak for themselves even though they are deeply affected.
The plants and animals of Texas are our heritage and our legacy to our children, grandchildren and future generations. The existing walls and fences harm them, and additional walls and fences will increase the harm.
Surely there are ways to deal with border issues without leaving such a legacy of damage.
Texans know that in a dry land, water is life. In dry lands, the greatest numbers and the most varieties of plants and animals live along streams and rivers. Near the southern border of Texas, water means, above all, the river that forms this border, called the Rio Grande in the U.S. and the Rio Bravo in Mexico.
Ecotourists from all over the world come to the Rio Grande in South Texas to see birds found nowhere else in the United States. In West Texas, visitors enjoy the animals and plants that the river supports there, as well as the spectacular scenery of its canyons in Big Bend National Park. All along the Rio Grande, plants and animals would be harmed by new border walls or fences.
South Texas is also the home of agriculture, ranches and cities, and little habitat for native plants and animals remains. Habitat for the ocelot, a small spotted wildcat, is already too scarce and too scattered to allow the few remaining Texas ocelots to form a single population with Mexican ocelots, threatening the remnants of the formerly connected population.
Unfortunately, ocelots are far from the only native species already threatened by habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and habitat degradation in South Texas. Bird habitat is also scarce and fragmented, as is the habitat of numerous small plants, insects and other animals. Fortunately, the land along the Rio Grande in West Texas is still mostly intact, except for the agricultural region near El Paso.
A section of wall or fence — together with the roads along it and its access roads, lights, vehicle traffic and effects on water flow — destroys habitat. Two populations of endangered plants that I study would simply be paved over. Walls and fences also block the movements of any animal that walks rather than flies and even some low-flying animals, including pollinating bees and butterflies. For example, there is an anecdotal report of a mass drowning of turtles that could not reach dry land when the river flooded because of one of the existing sections of border barrier.
Not only animals will be blocked by new walls and fences. Engineering constraints mean that barriers have to be up to 5 miles from the river. As a result, many preserves, especially those most valued by bird-watchers, will be either divided by a barrier or accessed only through a barrier. Passport checks for bird-watchers and park visitors? Abandon the walled-off land?
Parks, preserves and wildlife refuges, including some areas painstakingly restored to native vegetation, are particularly at risk from new walls and fences along the Rio Grande. Because they are mostly public land, they do not present the substantial challenges that negotiating or litigating a fair price for private land do, so they are prime targets for new wall segments. And by law, the construction of barriers along the border is exempt from all environmental protection laws.
If walls and fences are built along all of the Texas border, most of the green ribbon of life created by the river, with its fascinating birds, colorful butterflies, flowering shrubs and the rest of its plants and animals, will be lost forever. Much of it will be replaced by a sterile expanse of concrete, steel and asphalt.
Besides the immediate loss to those who now enjoy this piece of wild Texas, present and future generations of Americans will lose an irreplaceable piece of our heritage.
The debates about southern border barriers are complex. It is easy to overlook the many negative effects on our native plants, animals and ecosystems. For their sakes and for the sake of the legacy we leave our descendants, I hope Americans, and especially my fellow Texans, remember them.
Norma Fowler is a professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin.