Given this is one of the most biodiverse regions in the US southwest — home to jaguars, bears, mountain lions, coyotes, and smaller mammals — many other species’ migratory patterns have also been disrupted by the wall. A previous barrier of fenceposts and barbed wire at least permitted small animals to migrate back and forth through its gaps. But with the new wall’s increased height and barely four-inch gaps, that’s not possible any longer.
“The only animal that is NOT stopped by the wall are humans,” Neils says. “The wall stops everything else.”
Neils remembers checking the trail camera in the fall of 2020, and hearing border patrol, blasting, and seeing heavy machinery in the footage. By the end of November, when Trump lost the election, Neils said border wall construction increased to a 24-hour operation. Heavy machinery rattled the earth. “I can’t imagine what it was like to Lil’ Jefe’s ears. We know cats can detect that infrasound.”
The pandemic also contributed to the accelerated construction, Neils says. “If anything, they were able to get away with so much more, because there weren’t any monitoring groups.” The lack of accountability and oversight is evident throughout the construction zones. On a recent trip along the perimeter of the wall, there was litter everywhere: severed cacti, steel piles, plastic and wire used for explosives, and trash left behind by construction crews.
Instead of transporting water from outside sources to mix concrete for the wall, construction crews pumped water from Quitobaquito Springs in July 2020. The springs are sacred to the Tohono O’odham tribe and home to three endangered species, the sonoyta pupfish, Sonoran mud turtles, and the Quitobaquito spring snail. Protesters and activists tried to stop the crews on many occasions but were met with force by Border Patrol agents, local sheriffs, and park police.
The springs are drying up and at the lowest level in at least a decade. The wall works in both directions: Now animals from the south can no longer get access to a critical water source to their north — a factor becoming ever more critical as climate change delivers hotter temperatures and more extreme drought periods to the region.
ARIZONA ALREADY AVERAGES averages more than 50 dangerous heat days a year, the second highest in the nation. By 2050, the state is projected to see almost 80 such days a year. Additionally, the severity of widespread summer drought is projected to more than triple. These conditions will increase the intensity and frequency of wildfires. The border wall will trap animals trying to escape fires from the Arizona side and stop parched animals desperate for cooler temperatures and water access from Mexico.
Neils admits that she had given up hope in finding Lil’ Jefe. Then he showed up in that photo on that January day. “He showed up exactly when we needed him to. He showed us how little we know and made us humble again.” She can’t help but get emotional.
On April 30, President Biden announced the cancellation of all DoD funded border wall contracts. This means wall construction has stopped across Arizona. It’s too late, however, for Lil’ Jefe who remains stranded on the Arizona side.
Lil’ Jefe is an elder statesman with robust jowls. Though his territory has shrunk, fragmented by the wall, Neils says he will likely live out his remaining days in Arizona.She is unsure of his offspring; she hopes he fathered kittens with females in Sonora prior to the wall’s construction.
Neils plans to work with other Mexican researchers to collar a couple of ocelots with tracking devices to gain a deeper understanding of how constraints created by the wall have impacted ocelot behavior and migratory patterns. Meanwhile, her trail cameras remain in place on the Arizona side. She and her family were thrilled when Lil Jefe made another appearance in early April. Following their new tradition, the family danced together when they saw him on camera.