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N4T Investigators: Wildlife Warning

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TUCSON (KVOA) - Animals who call southern Arizona home may soon be locked out. This came after a federal report raised concerns over where border walls were built and what they were built out of.

For centuries, wildlife has been able to cross Arizona's rugged border. But some have said it's become increasingly difficult and nearly impossible for animals to follow traditional migration pathways.

A hike through waist-high grass took the News 4 Tucson Investigators to the San Pedro River. The river was dry from drought but birds could still be heard chirping from above. Below, animals hid from the sun as their tracks baked into the riverbed.

This part of Arizona's backyard has been deemed a national conservation area and a wall has started being built through it.

"Wildlife have been coming here forever and now we don't know where they're going to go," Dan Millis, the Borderlands Campaign Coordinator for Sierra Club said. "They're going to be blocked."

However, some people made the argument that animals can adapt and evolve. As a result, they would be able to find another pathway to and from their U.S. and Mexico habitats.

But according to Millis, even if there are other suitable habitats, breeding or nesting areas nearby, animals have been using the same pathways for centuries. So, they would not know to go elsewhere until it's too late.

"Adaptation means death, survival of the fittest," Millis said. "So, animals that don't make it through here might not survive and we might even see whole species go extinct."

His claim was supported by the Inspector General's Office (IGO).

In a recent report, the IGO said U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have relied on, "outdated border solutions" and "did not use a sound, well-documented..." process to pick, "areas along the border that would best benefit from physical barriers." 

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the wall's location has had or will likely have negative impacts on 31 endangered or threatened species in Arizona.  

"The new border wall that's being built is 12 feet taller than old stretches. So, we're really concerned about the elf owl. It's the smallest owl in the world," Emily Burns, a wildlife expert for Sky Island Alliance said.

Burns said the new wall may be too high for the elf owl and other birds to fly over. 

To quickly finish the wall the Secretary of Homeland Security waived natural resource and environmental laws.  

In a statement, a CBP spokesperson told the News 4 Tucson Investigators,

The projects located along the Arizona – Mexico border are being carried out under a waiver issued by the Secretary of Homeland Security, pursuant to section 102(c) of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), as amended.  The Secretary’s IIRIRA waiver sets aside the application of certain natural resource and environmental laws in order to ensure the expeditious construction of the border barrier. 

However, in instances where the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security determines it is necessary to exercise his or her authority to waive certain environmental laws to expedite construction of new border wall system, CBP still seeks to accomplish responsible environmental planning within a managed timeframe to meet operational needs. In addition, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) consults with federal, state, local, and other relevant stakeholders to identify potential wildlife corridors that may be present within a planned project area to avoid or to develop measures to offset or mitigate potential impacts, to the greatest extent possible, while still meeting treaty obligations and operational requirements. 

To this end, CBP is actively engaged with the Department of Interior, to include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service as well as the U.S. Forest Service, to identify locations for strategic locations of small wildlife openings along the border. For example, CBP worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to incorporate approximately 50 small wildlife passages within the ~63 miles of new border wall system, undertaken by DoD with FY19 284 Counter Narcotic Funds, located within the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector in Arizona.  Approximately 20 of the small wildlife passages are located along the border within the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and an additional approximately 20 small wildlife passages are located along the border east of Douglas, Arizona. The remaining openings are located between Naco and Douglas, AZ. In addition, CBP is working with these same agencies to identify additional strategic locations for small wildlife passages within the additional ~74 miles of new border wall system, undertaken by DoD with FY20 284 Counter Narcotic Funds, located within the Tucson Sector. Each opening measures approximately 8.5 inches wide by 11.5 inches high.

While some people have maintained that the wall is a danger to animals, others said it's needed to keep people safe.

As meth overdoses have risen across the country, those who support the wall said it will make it tougher for smugglers to bring drugs into the U.S.

In the case of meth, the wall seems to have been working.

CBP agents seized about 400 pounds of meth in the Tucson Border Sector in Fiscal Year 2016. Construction for the new wall was authorized in 2017. In Fiscal Year 2019, agents in the same area stopped nearly 3,000 pounds of meth from making its way up through Arizona. That was a nearly 600-percent increase in seizures.

Despite the IGO report, the Department of Homeland Security officials have maintained that walls need to go up fast to "immediately prevent unlawful entry into the U.S.".

Nearly all of Arizona's southern border already has a barrier built or one is in the progress of being built. You can track the progress of the Border Wall System near you on CBP's website.

If you have a story you'd like for us to investigate, email us at investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip line at 520-955-4444. 

Editors note: After the time of publication Emily Burns contacted the N4T investigators to clarify that she misspoke, Elf Owls are the smallest owls in the world, not the smallest bird species. As such, her quote has been corrected.

Alexis Berdine

Alexis Berdine is an Investigative Multi-Media Journalist at KVOA.

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