Two new sections of 30-foot-high border wall will be the end of the line for jaguars in Arizona, environmentalists and a former federal official say.
The planned expansions of the wall — one under construction, a second funded and nearly ready for contracting — will block the jaguar’s access to most of its federally designated prime habitat in Arizona.
And if access from Mexico is cut off, “you can kiss jaguars goodbye” in Arizona, said Steve Spangle. He oversaw federal management of the endangered cats in this country for 16 years, as head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Arizona Ecological Services office, before retiring in 2018.
“Without genetic rescue from Mexico, you are not going to have jaguars in the U.S. They can’t self-sustain here. Once that flow is cut off, I don’t think we’ll ever see jaguars here again,” Spangle said.
Those wall sections would also likely constitute a violation of federal law protecting critical jaguar habitat, Spangle said — if the Department of Homeland Security hadn’t obtained waivers from that law to streamline the wall’s construction.
Five male jaguars have been photographed in Arizona since 1996. That had raised hopes among jaguar advocates that a species previously thought extinct in the United States could be reestablished.
But once those 137 miles of new wall are built, access from Mexico will be blocked to 83% of the jaguar’s critical U.S. habitat in Arizona, according to calculations made by Myles Traphagen, a Tucson biologist, conservationist and ardent wall opponent.
Another 26 miles of wall, which would run through the San Rafael Valley south of Patagonia, have received federal waivers of environmental laws granting clearance for construction, but no money. If that section is ever built, 93% of critical jaguar habitat in Arizona will be blocked, said Traphagen, who is borderlands program coordinator for the Wildlands Network.
From a legal standpoint, the cutoff of access would likely amount to “adverse modification” of critical habitat, prohibited under the Endangered Species Act, Spangle said.
But because of waivers granted under a 2005 federal law allowing exemptions for the wall from such laws, there will be no formal, federal review of whether the wall construction would violate the Endangered Species Act.
“Critical habitat would be rendered completely useless. I don’t see how you can avoid that,” Spangle said. “The whole jaguar critical habitat was established to promote connectivity between Mexico and the U.S. This would ruin the function for which the whole critical habitat was established. If you compromise the very function for which critical habitat was designed, that would rise to the level of adverse modification.”
No construction ready for N.M. habitat – yet
In New Mexico, where two other male jaguars were photographed in 1996 and 2006, the spotted cat is a little better off — for now.
Customs and Border Protection has requested money for building sections of wall in critical habitat in that state, but the funding hasn’t been approved. Federal money has been allocated for wall sections adjoining critical habitat, however.
“That will have an impact on the cats, when it comes to construction impact and lighting,” Traphagen said.
Across the Mexican border, the wall will be a huge blow to the recovery of jaguars in Sonora, said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.
Not only do most biologists believe that the jaguars seen in the U.S. all came up from Mexico, but several jaguars photographed in Arizona and New Mexico have been documented in Mexico. That shows the cats’ survival in the two countries is clearly and inextricably linked, environmentalists have said.
“This is the classic story of extinction. You fragment the places where a species lives and roams, box it into smaller and smaller pieces of land that are no longer viable for its survival, and finally it succumbs to the pressure and winks out,” Serraglio said. “They must be allowed the breathing room to expand northward and find safe territories in the U.S.”
Through various federal lawsuits, the Center for Biological Diversity got the jaguar listed as endangered and forced the wildlife service to designate its critical habitat and approve a recovery plan.
The center also sponsored contests in schools to get various jaguars named, including El Jefe who roamed the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson for three years.
But the center has been unable through other lawsuits to stop border wall work, although it continues to press its case.
“The jaguar is part of Tucson’s identity now. The border wall is a senseless tragedy in many ways, but losing jaguars really hurts,” Serraglio said. "The thought of trying to explain to our kids and grandkids that El Jefe was one of the last of his kind just breaks my heart."
Wildlife crossings planned, agencies say
The reason conservationists say jaguars won’t be able to get through the new wall sections is that they will be 30-foot-tall steel bollards, 6 inches in diameter and spaced far too closely at 4 inches apart to let large mammals squeeze past. In many cases, these new wall sections will replace steel vehicle barriers 4 to 6 feet tall that stopped cars and trucks but not wildlife from crossing.
Federal officials, however, say they’re still planning efforts to allow jaguars and other large animals to get past the wall.
CBP and the Fish and Wildlife Service are collaborating “to identify strategies to accommodate larger mammals, such as jaguars, while still meeting U.S. Border Patrol’s operational requirements,” CBP spokesman Matthew Dyman told the Star in an email.
The wildlife service continues to work with CBP and other partners to identify locations and strategies for wildlife passages that could accommodate larger species like the jaguar, wildlife service spokeswoman Beth Ullenberg said. Larger wildlife passages would allow for continued use of habitat on both sides of the border, Ullenberg said.
As for Traphagen’s calculations on critical jaguar habitat, the service hasn’t fully reviewed his work and can’t comment on it, Ullenberg said. The wildlife service also didn’t respond to a question about Spangle’s comments on the wall violating federal critical habitat restrictions.
CBP didn’t respond to questions from the Star about how sections of wall now under construction could be somehow modified or retrofitted to accommodate large mammals. The border protection agency also plans to build numerous smaller, 8.5-inch-by 11-inch wildlife crossings to allow smaller mammals and reptiles to get through the wall.
Designs of crossings haven’t been publicly released. But environmentalists and Spangle are skeptical or downright scornful of their chances of working. Serraglio called the idea of using wildlife crossings to accommodate jaguars “just preposterous, utterly ridiculous.”
“One wonders, are they going to hand out maps south of the border and will the maps be in English or Spanish?” Serraglio said. “The wildlife would have to find the opening. If the opening is well lit and patrolled all the time, a jaguar is not going to walk through there anyway.”
Spangle said that without seeing a design for the crossings or knowing their size or how many would be built, he would be pretty skeptical of their feasibility for allowing jaguars through.
“We don’t know if a jaguar would find a small hole or use it if they did find it. They go where they go.”
Spangle didn’t speak out much on the wall on the job
Spangle’s comments contrast with his past stances on the wall. He didn’t speak out much on it while on the job, telling the Star that when he started his job back in 2002, “we weren’t asked to consult on any of that stuff.”
Under President Trump, before Spangle retired in March 2018, “there was nothing for us officially to comment on because there was no formal” review allowed of the wall’s impacts, he said. “We pretty much were ordered to refer any border wall inquiries to public affairs in Washington. We just stayed away from it.”
The service's inability to do anything about the wall was a source of frustration for him and his staff, he said. He called the Real ID Act's allowance for waivers "a time saver, a project saver in some cases. The Real ID Act was designed to cut off the whole environmental review process."
"We're dedicated public servants, whose mission in life is to conserve the species under our care," he said. "My staff very much didn’t like the idea of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act being waived. It took away our opportunity to have input -- not necessarily to stop but to modify projects."
At the same time, he said, he’s sure that at some point he was asked publicly about the wall, “and I explained that fragmentation is one of our biggest problems wildlife faces. Further fragmentation (by the wall) imperils them, for sure.”
Real ID Act laid the groundwork for wall in jaguar habitat
The groundwork for wall construction was laid in 2005, when Congress voted overwhelmingly to pass the Real ID Act that allowed Homeland Security to waive dozens of environmental laws to expedite border wall projects.
The act amended and broadened an earlier law giving the department powers to waive “all legal requirements” for fence construction, but only in the San Diego area. It passed at a time that concern was widespread about border security not only due to undocumented immigration and illegal drug smuggling, but about the possibility of terrorists coming into the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks.
In its latest of several waivers for the wall, Homeland Security acted on March 16 of this year to waive the Endangered Species Act and more than 30 other laws for construction of the latest 90 miles of Arizona wall, including the 26 miles not yet financed.
Other laws waived include the National Environmental Policy Act, which normally requires environmental impact statements for projects of this scope; the Clean Water Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Clean Air Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the National Forest Management Act and the National Park Organic Act, the Wilderness Act and several laws protecting Indian rights.
In his waiver announcement, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf wrote, “The lack of adequate barriers, either due to a complete absence of barrier or ineffective primary or secondary fencing that no longer meet Border Patrol’s operational needs, continues to be particularly problematic as it pertains to the trafficking of illegal narcotics in the Tucson Sector” of the Border Patrol where the fencing will be built.
In fiscal year 2019, in over 1,200 “drug-related events” in the Tucson Sector, the Border Patrol seized more than 59,000 pounds of marijuana, 150 pounds of cocaine, 155 pounds of heroin, 2,700 pounds of methamphetamine, and 12 pounds of fentanyl, Wolf wrote.
The waiver, however, fails to mention the overall pattern of drug smuggling in Southern Arizona, which is strikingly apparent at federal court in Tucson.
The vast majority of hard drugs come through ports of entry, such as Douglas, Naco and Nogales, where smugglers try to blend in with thousands of vehicles and pedestrians crossing the border for legitimate reasons every day, federal court records show. Only in very rare cases do Border Patrol agents catch hard drugs smuggled through the desert where the border wall is being built.
In the desert areas of Southern Arizona where the wall is going up, marijuana is far and away the most common drug seized, court records show.
To longtime large cat biologist Sergio Avila of Tucson, the section of the 2005 law allowing waivers prevents public involvement on a project built on public lands with public funds.
It also eliminates scientific research on projects through the Endangered Species Act, he said. That’s because the lack of environmental reviews means the wildlife service lacks the ability it usually has under federal law to conduct detailed analyses of the effects of projects like the wall on endangered species.
“It doesn’t take into consideration wilderness areas. It has been used to prevent competitive bidding for construction. The public loses their voice,” said Avila, who is outdoors program coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Southwest Region.
“And now that the waiver has been invoked here, it renders any argument about critical habitat moot,” he said.
Arizona isn’t critical for the jaguar, Game and Fish says
But it is “misplaced to say Arizona is critical to jaguar recovery,” said Jim DeVos, assistant director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which is charged with managing wildlife in the state.
“It’s been decades, almost 50 years since there was a female jaguar in Arizona,” said DeVos, referring to the 1963 shooting death in the White Mountains of the last female jaguar documented in the state.
“The department and the Fish and Wildlife Service have said it’s important to work on jaguar recovery, but it’s important to focus our time and energies and funding in areas where jaguar recovery can occur. That’s in Mexico itself,” DeVos said.
Game and Fish has consistently opposed the designation of jaguar critical habitat in Arizona, because its officials don’t believe there is a viable jaguar population here due to the absence of females.
“Look at current conditions. We are at about 7 million people in Arizona. We have an interstate system that crisscrosses the area,” DeVos said. “We can’t recreate wild Arizona given our population.”
Game and Fish is abdicating its responsibility “to a transnational species” by saying the recovery should be undertaken mainly in Mexico, the Wildlands Network’s Traphagen countered.
Serraglio called DeVos’ statements misleading and disingenuous.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided the habitat here is critical for jaguar recovery. That’s why they designated it, after a long process, thorough scientific review and yes, a couple of court actions,” Serraglio said.
Star reporter Curt Prendergast contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Tony Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 806-7746. On Twitter: @tonydavis987.