March 26, 2009
by Claire Martin
There's just a set of raccoon tracks on the dusty road in one of Wendy Shattil's new wildlife photographs. You can't see the raccoon.
But you can understand its determination as the tracks travel steadily alongside one stretch of the giant, and controversial, border wall that is going up along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Shattil, a Denver photographer renowned for her wildlife images, followed the little footprints for more than half a mile as they doggedly followed the access road next to the wall in Hidalgo County, Texas. A river courses on the other side of the wall, sometimes close enough to hear.
"It's hard to tell what's in the mind of a raccoon, but it could have been looking for the end of the barrier because it wanted to (cross over)," Shattil said.
"That could explain why it walked so far next to the wall. The tracks didn't stray from the road the entire distance."
Shattil, a slim woman with a piercing gaze and a mane of dark hair, recently spent three weeks on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands along with 12 other International League of Conservation Photographers. Each photographer documented a section of the wall between San Diego, Calif., and Brownsville, Texas.
Her trip to the borderlands produced a portfolio that illustrates how the formidable wall, designed to deter illegal border crossings, is also blocking ancient wildlife migration paths and habitat on more than 100,000 acres of riverfront public land and wildlife reserves.
The public is divided on merits of the wall, to say the least. Proponents argue it is a necessary step toward stopping lawbreakers and preserving security. Others fear it will take a terrible toll on the natural environment.
To hasten the wall's construction, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived scores of federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
Borderland environmentalists joke, sort of, that once the wall is built, the only ocelot likely to thrive in Texas is the Ocelot Grove subdivision, a housing development. The wall will separate a Mexican ocelot population from a tiny and increasingly inbred Texas ocelot community that wildlife preservationists say desperately needs new blood to survive.
Bulldozed access roads flank both sides of the steadily growing 15-foot wall, ravaging U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge tracts, a state park, several birding centers and a butterfly preserve. Both the Nature Conservancy's Southmost Preserve and the Sabal Palm Audubon sanctuary are in the wall's path.
"People outside the borderlands don't have a clue about what's up with the wall," Shattil said.
"A lot of animals will starve or dehydrate unless they can find alternatives to what they've historically used."
Though birds can fly over the wall, the construction is destroying habitat hard- won over the past two decades by Ducks Unlimited, state and federal wildlife officials, and other conservation groups.
The refuges lured birds, and then a growing number of bird-watching tourists, who flocked to the borderlands to add to their life lists. Texas is the only state with its own Peterson's Field Guide, the birders' handbook.
Green jays, kiskadees, pauraques, roseate spoonbills, kingfishers and other rare birds — the second sighting of the snail kite was on the no-man's land between the wall and the Rio Grande river — have drawn so many birders to this part of Texas
In acknowledgment of the wall's potential impact on wildlife, construction crews drape potato sacks and other fabric bags on top of the hollow metal posts that spike into the air. The bags are meant to protect the birds in case they land on the posts, one worker explained to Shattil.
Her photographs and others from the project will be displayed on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to draw attention to proposed legislation that would halt the wall's construction.
"When you look at the wall from the ground, it looks like an artistic statement that will be taken down in a few days," Shattil said.
"It's such an anomaly. It doesn't look like a wall that should exist in the U.S. Especially in Texas."