In late 2021, an endangered Mexican gray wolf embarked on an epic journey.
Known as Mr. Goodbar, the male had left his pack months earlier in eastern Arizona in search of his own territory and a mate. He headed south and east through the Chihuahuan Desert, a vast, biodiverse expanse of grassland and shrubland interspersed with mountain ranges and valleys.
The lanky dog, sporting a mix of silver-brown fur and not yet two years old, passed by on the outskirts of Las Cruces, New Mexico on November 22. The land is wide open and dotted with creosote, yucca and cacti. Ahead of him were distant peaks, including now-extinct volcanoes and craters of the East Potrillo Mountains, whose southern tip abuts the Mexican border. Guided by instinct through the former territory of his species, he headed in that direction.
But he quickly found himself at a confusing impasse: the US-Mexico border. Just a year earlier, the land was open except for a short vehicle barrier, a type of low porous fence intended to prevent cars and trucks from illegally crossing. But now he found it blocked by a 30-foot-high wall, made up of massive steel beams separated by four-inch gaps, admitting only the smallest of animals. (Read more: Arizona border wall will include openings too small for many animals.)
Most of the New Mexico border is now flanked by this fence, built from 2018 to 2020 under Donald Trump’s administration, a fact lost on Mr Goodbar, who simply kept moving west. In all, he spent almost five days migrating along the wall, sometimes changing direction briefly, presumably trying to head south around the obstacle. Eventually, about 23 miles west of where he met him, he gave up and headed north.
The wolf’s path, tracked by a GPS collar affixed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is one of the first concrete evidence the wall is altering the movement of free-ranging wildlife, says Michael Robinson, a wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental group.
“I wasn’t surprised it happened, because we predicted it,” Robinson says. “But I was disgusted.”
Mr. Goodbar’s setbacks confirm what conservationists and scientists have been warning for years: that the movements of all large animals will be disrupted by the border wall. This includes not only wolves, but also endangered Sonoran antelope, jaguars, ocelots and bighorn sheep, as well as more common species such as cougars, bobcats, mule deer and many more. others.
The wolf case study “is an extremely important data point,” says Myles Traphagen, a biologist at the Wildlands Network, a nonpartisan group dedicated to preserving wildlife corridors. First, it shows that “the border wall jeopardizes the recovery of an endangered species.
“And think of all the other animals [it affects], and everyday events that happen that we can’t see,” he says.
The Fish and Wildlife Service maintains that the Mexican wolf can recover without individuals traveling back and forth between the two countries, said Aislinn Maestas, spokesperson for the FWS agency. National geographic.
The biological models employed by the agency assume that there will be “limited connectivity between the populations of the United States and Mexico due to the distance between the populations, the presence of an international border and the mortality rate higher observed with dispersing wolves”. Still, scientists estimate that a wolf could disperse to the other population once every 12 to 16 years, but those calculations were made before the wall was planned or built.
“Successful dispersal between populations has the potential to benefit population genetics, but Mexican wolf recovery can be achieved without successful dispersal because we use releases from captivity to meet genetic needs,” says Maestas. The service regularly introduces newborn wolves, born in captivity, into wild wolf dens, a strategy with its detractors and supporters.
Back from the brink
Mexican gray wolves, a subspecies of gray wolf, are protected under the US Endangered Species Act. These predators are slightly smaller than gray wolves and once ranged widely throughout Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico. But the US government has targeted the animal on behalf of the breeding industry. The last breeding Mexican wolves were eliminated from the United States in the 1930s. In 1976, they were listed under the Endangered Species Act, which reversed longstanding efforts to eliminate them.
The following year, the government hired a wolf trapper, Roy McBride, who had already killed the animals, to capture the last wolves in northern Mexico alive. Three animals he captured and four others already in captivity, seven in total, were bred in captivity. Beginning in 1998, their descendants were released into the wilds of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. As of March 2021, approximately 186 animals lived in the two states, an increase of 14% from the previous year. Another dozen wolves live in a small population in northern Mexico. Yet the genetic diversity of the population is dangerously low, says Robinson.
Ideally, wolves from both populations could naturally reach each other and interbreed, which would benefit the species as a whole by expanding the gene pool. To make such a journey, however, they face many obstacles, such as Interstate 10, which Mr. Goodbar – born at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas – has now crossed twice. (A Mexican wolf was killed by a car along the highway in February 2021.)
But the newly built border wall does not allow such a passage. This is harmful to large-winged animals such as wolves, whose ability to migrate is “crucial for their long-term genetic viability”, says John Linnell, a biologist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research who studies the interactions between predators such as wolves and humans. .
Since the wall directly interferes with the movement of Mexican wolves, it would normally violate the Endangered Species Act. But the Real Identity Act of 2005 gives the head of the Department of Homeland Security the power to override that law and dozens of others. U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to National Geographic request for comment.
Additionally, New Mexico’s 105 miles of new wall is just a small portion of the more than 450 miles of wall built under the Trump administration. More than 220 miles of new wall stretches along the Arizona border, 120 miles in California and 17 miles in Texas, Traphagen says. (Read more: Arizona’s sacred spring dries up as border wall construction continues.)
Overt construction of the border wall has ceased, although Customs and Border Protection announced on December 20 that they would “make small gaps” in the wall, although what this entails is unclear. Several environmental and tribal groups have sued the federal government to stop construction, attempts that have mostly failed.
Mr Goodbar is now in the Gila National Forest, near where he began his journey. It is not known whether it will return to new territory or attempt to establish itself near its home range.
In 2017, two wolves entered the United States from Mexico. One of them crossed the border without problems at about the exact spot where Mr Goodbar tried to cross without success. Another was Mr Goodbar’s mother: The female headed north near Douglas, Arizona, past the San Bernardino Valley, a global hotspot for bee diversity, which is also now blocked by a new wall. She was captured in Arizona following complaints from a breeder and gave birth in captivity to Mr. Goodbar.
Conservationists and scientists are urging more action to address the plight of border animals like these wolves, pointing out that the wall is seriously fragmenting populations and blocking ancient migration routes. “It’s an event that I think needs a lot more attention,” Traphagen says. “This is just the beginning.”
Robinson once enjoyed visiting the area where Mr Goodbar attempted to pass, walking in the footsteps of countless animals present and past.
“It’s a sublime landscape, touching, full of life,” he says. But the 30-foot barrier cut through the landscape changed his experience.
“It breaks my heart to go down to the wall,” he said.