August 20, 2020

The owlet was found on the ground, a ball of gray and white fuzz nestled near the cut tree that had been its home. Border wall construction equipment had just moved through the area in western Starr County, Texas, clearing a swath of the forest growing near the Rio Grande downriver from Falcon International Reservoir. The Department of Homeland Security had chopped down and was reducing to mulch an area more than 150 feet wide and miles long, the footprint for a 30-foot-tall border wall, patrol road and enforcement zone. Workers found an Eastern screech owl among the debris and turned it over to a wildlife rehab facility. No one knows if other chicks perished in the destruction, but screech owls can lay up to six eggs per brood.

Eastern screech owlet
Elsa Hull

The little owl was fortunate. At the height of nesting season, it’s likely other nests in the forest were obliterated, eggs destroyed and chicks killed. Studies on clearcutting demonstrate that there is no way to reduce acres of forest to mulch without killing wildlife on a massive scale. Besides bird nests, mammals and reptiles that attempt to escape by burrowing into debris and leaf litter easily fall victim to the movement of the heavy machinery. Animals that manage to escape often flee into areas where the habitat is not suitable to support them. 

Tragedies like the one that befell this owl family are happening daily to wildlife as border wall construction in South Texas ramps up. 

Just a few days earlier and a few miles upriver from the reservoir in neighboring Zapata County, a ranching family recorded a more hopeful wildlife encounter. They spotted a black bear running along a fence line, having probably traveled 60 miles or more from the Sierra de los Picachos in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, before crossing the Rio Grande. In recent years, bears have been making their way into South Texas thanks to an increasing population in Mexico, which protects them as an endangered species and encourages private ranchers and land cooperative to provide them with safe habitat.

Although this was the first confirmed bear sighting in Zapata County in recent years, Starr County has reported multiple sightings in the past decade as well as sightings and roadkill in Webb County upriver from Zapata.

Black bear with sign in Big Bend NP
NPS

Black bears once roamed across Texas but were hunted for sport, meat and hides, and in retaliation for livestock predation until few remained. Bears also lost vital habitat to agriculture and urbanization. Seeing the return of these creatures excites conservationists. Indeed, a ranch owner near where the bear was spotted is working to preserve and restore habitat on his land to attract wildlife.  

Male bears often set off looking for new territory and can travel far from where they were reared. Given adequate habitat and hospitable landowners educated about living with bears, these males could have been the vanguard for a future breeding population in South Texas. 

Although border wall construction has not yet made it to Webb and Zapata counties, this year the Trump administration announced plans to build a wall there that will stretch the full length of Webb. It will wall off Zapata to where the river widens at the Falcon Reservoir, a total of 69 miles. The planned wall picks back up again after the dam in Starr County and runs almost to the Gulf of Mexico.

Map of texas border wall

This wall would effectively end the black bears’ forays into South Texas, as well as the hope for the species’ reestablishment here.

Border wall javelina
Matt Clark

As these two stories illustrate, the border wall is an immediate environmental tragedy and a future environmental disaster. Every day of clearing for its construction means the deaths of more animals and the disruption of untold lives of wild creatures. Once built it will fragment habitat and cut off wildlife from water, food sources and mates. As a permanent obstacle that blocks migration and gene flow on a massive, almost continent-wide scale, the border wall would have almost inconceivable consequences for wildlife. 

The owlet cannot be returned to her nest. Animals killed by a bulldozer’s blade or a chainsaw’s bite cannot be brought back to life. But we can still stop the owl’s tragedy from repeating all along the border, and we can still hope for the bears’ return, if we work to prevent the building of new border walls and set the stage now for removing existing walls. 


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