In Arizona, an Art Installation Highlights the U.S.-Mexico Border’s Impact on Wildlife

Earlier in May, a towering image of a jaguar suddenly rippled into view on the border wall straddling Nogales, Arizona, and Sonora, Mexico. A striking Mexican wolf then shimmered in the big cat’s stead, followed by a brown bear, a pronghorn and a mountain lion. 

This menagerie of animal projections reflect the iconic species that roam through the desert region—and are most at risk from the wall carved through it, which was expanded upon and fortified during the Trump administration. 

The temporary installation was created by artist Lauren Strohacker in partnership with several environmental nonprofits to bring attention to how the U.S.-Mexico border wall is disrupting critical habitats for a variety of wildlife that are increasingly threatened by development and human-caused climate change. 

“This isn’t about making beautiful art. It’s about radicalizing people to what this wall does, what it doesn’t do, what people say it does and that it’s not a solution to whatever we consider to be problems,” Strohacker told me. “And it’s causing more and more problems for those communities—both human and nonhuman—in the borderlands.” 

For today’s newsletter, I am diving into the science behind why border walls could affect wildlife populations, and how art is playing a growing role in spotlighting these issues.

Endangered Sonoran pronghorns can be found in Mexico and southwest Arizona. Credit: Lauren Strohacker

Animals Across the Border: The U.S.-Mexico border wall stretches between San Diego and Brownsville, Texas—cut in the middle by the Rio Grande River—where a spectrum of nature exists on either side of the structure.

“I think that there’s sort of a monolithic view of the border, from people who don’t live close to it. And it’s usually the image of, you know, just desert landscape,” Myles Traphagen told me. He’s the borderlands program coordinator at the nonprofit Wildlands Network, which supported Strohacker’s work. 

But along the 1,200 miles that span the Pacific Coast to the Rio Grande, “there’s a lot of variability on the landscape,” ranging from ocean intertidal zones to juniper forests in New Mexico and Arizona, he said. 

The wall structure itself can look just as diverse as the landscapes depending on where you are. In parts of Texas, for example, the rugged terrain surrounding the Rio Grande River acts as a natural barrier with little to no human-made fencing, while other regions contain sporadic structures that mainly focus on preventing cars from crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. Meanwhile, in Nogales—where the recent art installation took place—the wall was built using around 20-foot high steel bollards filled with concrete, wrapped in barbed wire.

These are the type of structures that can fence out humans and wildlife alike, said Jesse Alston, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. 

“The newer border wall design geared to try to keep every single thing out … really has reduced the ability of animals, particularly large animals, to get through the fence just because there’s not as much space in between the slats,” Alston, who studies animal movement, told me. While smaller animals such as rabbits and lizards can still travel through the wall, “if you think of something like a mule deer, it has 30-inch wide antlers, which are really firm,” he said. “You can’t fold your antlers up and squeeze across.”

He added that an equally deterring factor to wildlife as the physical structures is the widespread human presence and activity across the entire border—from bright lights and loud vehicles patrolling roads around the wall to the influx of immigrants trying to pass through to claim asylum in the U.S. 

In any case, barriers can prevent wildlife from finding resources such as food and water or potential mates. This was the case with an endangered Mexican wolf nicknamed Mr. Goodbar. He paced a length of the wall around New Mexico in 2021 for nearly five days before giving up and traveling back north, which writer Douglas Main covered for National Geographic in 2022.

In 2021, the border wall prevented a Mexican gray wolf from crossing into Mexico, scientists say. Credit: Lauren Strohacker

Climate change could also pose complex issues for animals at the border. Some studies suggest that warming temperatures and habitat loss could push jaguars from Mexico northward in the future, where they may face the wall structures throughout Arizona and New Mexico. In other places, such as mountain ranges that straddle the border, animals may try to move up in elevation to escape warming temperatures or chase food sources and “then get kind of stuck at the border wall and not be able to take advantage of those habitat changes,” Alston said.

There has not yet been much research on the effects the border has already had on wildlife, largely because this region is difficult and sometimes dangerous to study. There are a few modifications in parts of the wall, such as small slots similar to “doggie doors” to help mitigate its impact, though researchers are uncertain of their effectiveness for different species. 

“It’s not a simple question. I wish it was,” Alston said. “It’d be a lot easier if it was a simple question.”

Projecting Wildlife’s Plight: Strohacker created her first wildlife projection in 2017 at the border wall in Douglas, Arizona, where animal images were seen clearly on both sides of the structure in the U.S. and Mexico. 

This time, however, Strohacker’s wildlife projections faced many of the same issues that actual animals face at the Nogales wall. 

“It was a very different projection. The animals were certainly artistically fighting the concertina [barbed] wire. It was fighting the lighting but I think that certainly reflects what’s actually happening,” Strohacker said, adding that there were dead vines and a ragged t-shirt hanging from the wire. “This is very much more of a devastating setting.”  

Black bears are the only bear species still found in Arizona. Credit: Lauren Strohacker

When conceptualizing her projects, most of which center around wildlife, Strohacker typically considers three main factors: the place she is working in, the memory and changing landscapes of that place, and the conflicts within it. For her border installations, she also had to spend a lot of time thinking about logistics. In 2017, Strohacker had to meet with “two very large border patrol agents,” though it was not difficult to get the project approved since she wasn’t painting or physically touching the border with anything, she said. 

Other artists have centered their work around issues at the border, primarily focusing on the human struggles immigrants have faced. For example, in 2019, a functioning teeter-totter for children was installed at the structure passing through New Mexico and Mexico to represent that “actions that take place on one side have a direct consequence on the other side,” the artists Ronald Rael and designer Virginia San Fratello wrote in a social media post

Strohacker says that the fate of animals are also intertwined with human actions—and art enables her to reach audiences in a different way than science. 

“It’s not necessarily about, you know, displaying ideas or illustrating. It’s about creatively having conversations with people and storytelling in a much deeper way that I think unfortunately, science and facts can’t do,” she says. “We definitely need to touch people’s hearts, as saccharine as that might be.”  

More Top Climate News

I recently wrote about how extreme weather events and heat are affecting schools across the U.S. It turns out that fixing that problem won’t be easy—or cheap. 

A new Washington Post analysis finds that as heat waves become more frequent in northern states, ramping up school air conditioning in regions that didn’t previously need it could cost billions of dollars. However, this intervention will be crucial for students because research shows that heat can disrupt a child’s cognition and ability to focus in class. 

Meanwhile, a 73-year-old passenger recently died due to injuries he incurred during severe turbulence on a flight from London to Singapore. Research says that rising temperatures caused by climate change could be making turbulence on planes increasingly frequent and severe by strengthening the jet stream in the atmosphere, reports Nature

In other news, rivers and streams in Alaska are turning orange, likely due to thawing frozen soil, according to a new study. Known as permafrost, this soil is exposing water to minerals such as iron as temperatures warm, transforming once clear bodies of water into rusty liquid rivers, writes Aliya Uteuova for The Guardian

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