In her work as a journalist and conservation photographer, Krista Schlyer has come across an issue few are talking about, despite the fact that everyone is talking about it.
The U.S.-Mexico border is arguably the most controversial topic in immigration politics, and every day there's a new angle, including the massive project to build a wall between the two countries. While everyone is busy discussing the human aspects, few people are bringing attention to the impact it has on wildlife. A wall spanning thousands of miles east to west across the continent has significant impacts on countless species. A portion of the wall has already been constructed, and biologists and researchers are seeing the disastrous consequences, including species separated from their food and water sources, others cut off from migration routes, and habitats destroyed. In an effort to push the construction of the wall forward, environmental laws have been waived.
Thankfully Schlyer is working to document and bring attention to the many problems the wall is creating. She spoke with us about her project as well as what it's like to be a conservation photojournalist focusing on issues that are so daunting.
MNN: Your biggest project right now is Borderlands, exploring the impact of the wall being built between the U.S. and Mexico on wildlife. What was the catalyst that got you working on this project?
Krista Schlyer: I had an assignment from Wildlife Conservation magazine in 2006 that sent me to Chihuahua, Mexico, to meet with a scientist studying a herd of wild bison that traveled back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border. The scientist, Rurik List, and I got up in the air in a Cessna to look for the herd and we spotted them just as they were crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, which at the time was a broken-down barbed-wire fence (broken by the bison themselves).
When we got to the ground, we visited the ranches on either side of the border to learn what we could about the bison's movements and habits. The rancher on the Mexican side of the border said the bison visited a pond on his land almost every day because it was the only year-round water source anywhere nearby. The rancher on the American side said they came to a certain pasture on his land, where there was a special kind of native grass.
This was right around the time when the U.S. government was making plans to build a border wall — and it suddenly hit me hard what this would mean for the bison, and all the other wildlife of the region whose scarce food and water resources were often split by the border. This moment was most definitely the catalyst for my work in the borderlands.
How are animals being impacted by the walls? Is there no way for them to get over or under them?
Different animals are impacted in different ways, not just by walls, but by the road infrastructure and habitat destruction that accompanies wall construction, as well as the destruction caused by other border militarization activities like off-road vehicles driven by border patrol agents, and bright lights installed in dark places that shy wildlife need to travel through. For many large mammals it is the walls themselves that divide them from food and water resources like the bison I saw, and it's what keeps them from migrating as droughts increase in the Southwest due to climate change.
Some sections of wall are 18 feet high and solid steel, so no terrestrial animals (except humans) can pass. Other walls are high but not solid, so small reptiles can get through. Still others are low vehicle barriers, but because of the way they were constructed — without input from wildlife scientists — they are impassable to bison, pronghorn and even deer.
Walls can also divide populations, disrupting population genetics. For example, one herd of pronghorn in Arizona started to disappear a few years after a segment of wall was built there. Scientists began watching the herd and learned that when the border barrier was built, all of the males but one were trapped on the Mexico side of the border. The only male on the U.S. side was an old non-breeding male. So suddenly the herd had no way to reproduce.
In South Texas, most of the impact has been habitat destruction and fragmentation. In this area less than 5 percent of the native habitat remains — largely due to government programs in the 1980s that paid farmers to slash and burn the native thorn scrub habitat. Border wall construction has been destroying habitat in the national wildlife refuges there that were created to provide a last refuge of habitat for native species. It's an important place because it is a nexus of the tropical and temperate zones, so there are all these species that exist here that don't appear anywhere else in the United States.
We need to be restoring the damage we have already done there, not destroying more of this rare habitat.
In trying to grasp the scale of this, how can we put this wall's construction into perspective with its impact on species diversity or, in the worst case, extinction?
Well, on the U.S.-Mexico border we are taking about a 2,000-mile region that runs east to west. Wildlife almost always migrate north to south when climates change, in order to find cooler/wetter climates, or warmer/drier climates depending on the climate shift. In an era of global climate warming — particularly in the U.S. Southwest where temperatures are rising and droughts increasing already — blocking off the entirety of the northerly route for migrating wild species will devastate their ability to move, adapt and survive.
This is a huge ecological problem that if it continues will likely cause extinctions for some species that are endemic to the region or already imperiled, and localized extinctions for others, which will throw ecosystem dynamics out of balance all along the border.
In the case of cat species, we have already begun to reduce their chances for survival. Five of North America's six cat species live in the borderlands, three of those don't live anywhere else in the U.S. The jaguar, ocelot and jaguarundi are all critically endangered in the U.S. due to habitat loss and historical hunting. Their only hope for real recovery here is an ability for cats to migrate here from Mexico. We are closing off their only pathways for doing that, and dooming the recovery of these beautiful felines.
Beyond the on-the-ground impact, there is an even larger issue. The damage on the border has mainly been possible due to the dismissal of environmental law all along the borderlands. In 2005, the RealID Act authorized the Department of Homeland Security to waive all laws on the border to expedite construction of the border barrier — ALL laws. So far 37 laws have been waived permanently on the border, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the American Eagle Protection Act, and the list goes on.
This dismissal of environmental law not only endangered vulnerable wild species like jaguars, wolves, and Sonoran pronghorn, it also sets a terrible precedent that it's okay for our government to ignore environmental laws and destroy the natural world.
Are there any solutions, politically speaking, that can alleviate the damage to wildlife so far, and prevent it during further construction?
We need people to speak out. To tell their members of Congress and the White House that they don't want walls and further militarization and that they want the Endangered Species Act and all other environmental laws restored on the border. Now is an especially important time for members of Congress to hear that their constituents care about wildlife and natural places. The borderlands is in a very precarious position. There has been much talk of immigration reform, but the Democrats in the Senate devised a plan that would drastically worsen the situation for wildlife on the border — more walls, more militarization, more dismissal of environmental law. The bill that passed the Senate a year ago had some good immigration policy reforms but it included destructive border security provisions. Immigration reform needs to be separated from border policy.
Congress and the White House know that walls don't stop people, and they know that spending billions of dollars ($20-$40 billion and counting) on border militarization and walls has not reduced the number of people coming here for work. People come because they need jobs to feed their families, and because we have industry that need them to work and will pay them. It is economics and labor that drive immigration, not border policy. But for the past 20 years we've had border policy instead of immigration policy. It doesn't work, but it can win elections.
In your work, especially with Borderlands, how do you balance being an objective journalist and a passionate conservationist?
It's a tricky balance. First off, I work really hard to stay informed. The more I know, the better I can convey what is really happening, rather than just my feelings about what is happening. I was trained as a journalist, so journalism is my framework. But much of what I work on is personally heartbreaking to me. When I do slideshows and talks with my book "Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall," I often get emotional, on the verge of tears sometimes. I have spent time — quiet, important time — with the wild species I'm talking about. And I know that their futures, in some cases the future of their species, depends on what we humans do. We have a huge responsibility as a civilization, that I think many people in our society have never thought about.
The future of wild things depends on us, and I think now is a time that journalism, especially conservation and environmental journalism, needs quite a lot more passion.
What other conservation projects have captured your interest since beginning photojournalism?
I have worked for many years to document the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., and the wildlife and people that live in the watershed. Urban watersheds and urban biodiversity are a big interest of mine. Part of this project includes working on an awesome initiative started by a friend of mine, Clay Bolt, and Scottish photographer Niall Benvie, called Meet Your Neighbours. It is aimed at helping people get to know the wildlife that lives all around them. I love it!
Most recently I worked on a project with Defenders of Wildlife to document some of the California desert wildlife and wild lands that are threatened by poorly sited solar and wind development. I have a deep love and respect for the desert and its creatures, so this was a fantastic opportunity to work with a really great wildlife organization on a very pressing issue. We have the chance to evolve our relationship with energy, to reduce the impact of our energy consumption on the natural world, but only if we are thoughtful about it.
What is your outlook on the ability of conservation photography to engage and inspire people to act on environmental issues?
The potential for conservation photography is boundless, especially in an era of social media. The borderlands project and this recent desert project I did with Defenders of Wildlife give me great hope for what we can accomplish — not to mention all the amazing and inspiring work my colleagues are doing.
But we are really at the beginning of this experiment of combining photography and conservation activism. The potential for innovation, collaboration and communication on conservation issues is far beyond what we have reached. It is a really exciting time. But also difficult as a profession. Many conservation groups have not seized this idea yet, and are reluctant to fund this work. And the true potential cannot be reached without some investment by the conservation community.
Have you ever had a moment of despair in your work, when it feels like the tasks ahead are impossible to accomplish, that the conservation work necessary to make a difference is too much too late? How have you gotten through it?
Oh, so many times.
I raised money last year to give a copy of my book
When I started on the borderlands project, the border wall had not been built. Several conservation groups were fighting hard against it in the courts and on Capital Hill. Environmental law still existed in the borderlands. Since then about 650 miles of border barrier have been built (about 300 of that is solid wall, the rest is a less damaging low barrier). Environmental law has been dismissed over much of the border, and many of the environmental groups have given up, fearing that without environmental law they have no legal legs to stand on. And the Senate Democrats created and passed a bill that would add 700 more miles of wall, double the border patrol, and expand the waiver of environmental law.
When each of these things happened I fought hard not to be overcome with despair. And lost. For days I would wallow in my failure to stop what had happened, and I would battle with feelings of inadequacy and helplessness. But what kept me going was that each time I gave a talk about the borderlands, whether it was in Utah or Maryland, people would come up to me afterward and say, often with tears in their eyes, "What can I do to help, I had no idea this was happening!"
People care, people love wildlife and are connected to nature on a very fundamental level. But they don't know what's happening, so I, and the awesome folks that I work with on this issue, just have to keep trying. And that is true for every conservation issue out there. We will lose many battles, sink into despair and lose faith. But we have to get back up and keep trying and know that every little thing we do for the wild world will help.
It helps a lot to be collaborating with a committed team of conservationists. I have worked side-by-side with the Sierra Club Borderlands Team and the International League of Conservation Photographers on many projects. When I get discouraged, I just look at the work my friends and colleagues are doing, that is often all the encouragement I need.
What keeps you passionate about conservation photography itself?
Two things. It is those special moments in the field when I watch prairie dog pups tumble out of their burrows first thing in the morning, or watch a kit fox caught in the golden light of the setting sun, or watch rain clouds gather over the desert and then inhale the sweet smell of creosote that fills the air. But it's also this sense of responsibility to see those things endure. Not for the future of humanity — although I do believe that our ability to survive and thrive is tied to our will to conserve the natural world — but more importantly, I want the kit fox, prairie dog and creosote to be able to live and thrive just for them, just because they are beings that give beauty to the world.