A new study shows that the 15,000 to 19,000 miles of fences and walls dividing countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where a lot of security fencing has recently been installed to confront the growing refugee crisis, pose a "major threat" to wildlife.
According to the study, deer, wolves, bears and other wildlife suffer both immediate harms from entanglement in fences as well as long-term population fragmentation and a reduction in their ability to respond to threats like climate change.
The massive influx of refugees from conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa has led to hundreds of miles of new border security fences both within and around the EU. These fences, according to the study, "were erected as emergency measures with no environmental impact assessments concerning their design or placement."
A similar phenomenon has happened farther east in Eurasia where newly independent countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union have installed border fences in response to regional security concerns.
While many of these fences were initially meant to serve a temporary purpose, they may become permanent structures and have longstanding consequences to animals living in the region.
Dr. John C. Linnell, lead author on the study and a professor at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, told Fusion that the geopolitical response to 9/11 also played a role in the deteriorating border security situation. He said the fences reflect "a change in political discourses towards increased nationalism and popularism and the use of the politics of fear."
"In such cases the fences serve a mainly symbolic function to separate between an 'us' and a 'them' and to attract voters," he said.
When it comes to wildlife, the main symbolism is that of the stark divide between the natural world and the human-dominated one.
Linnell said the fences can exclude animals from important seasonal ranges as well as limit their ability to adapt to unpredictable weather or climatic conditions. In the longer term, they will prevent the exchange of animals between populations, thus lowering their genetic viability.
The study suggests that if borders can't be kept open due to security threats, perhaps parts along especially rugged terrain could remain clear as wildlife corridors. Similarly, critical migration routes and natural resources could be circumnavigated and some areas could be opened only during certain seasons or when animals were noticeably trying to cross. In any of these cases, other forms of security such as video monitoring or patrolling could be deployed.
"Wildlife conservation involves dealing with many issues beyond the biology of the animals themselves," said Linnell. "It needs to be integrated into the activities of multiple sectorial interests, such as transport, agricultural, forestry, energy, and as we now point out, border security."
In one such example of these overlapping demands, the study notes that when Hungary closed its border to refugees in the summer of 2015, Slovenia, overrun with refugees on their way to Western Europe, constructed a razor-wire security fence along large parts of the country's 415-mile border with Croatia—an area home to brown bears, gray wolves, and Eurasian lynx. All three of these large carnivores are considered a conservation priority in the EU.
"Such a fence likely has considerable unintended consequences for nature conservation," write the authors:
Large spatial requirements and low population densities make conservation of these species particularly challenging, and the current successes in their conservation rely largely on the ability of individuals to move between subpopulations. For these reasons, the Habitats Directive specifies that EU Member States must establish species-specific interconnected networks of protected areas. The security fence is likely to interrupt the existing connectivity.
Fences are not necessarily bad for conservation, and in fact can actually be beneficial, such as in Africa where conservation fences around national parks can protect species from poachers and other illegal hunters.
Dr. Arie Trouwborst, a co-author on the study and an associate professor of environmental law at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, told Fusion that the key word is integration.
"The needs of wildlife need to be effectively integrated within a range of 'non-wildlife' sectors, in this case security, immigration, and land use planning," he said.
Trouwborst said that larger animals are most vulnerable to the border fences, because "fences designed to stop people will also stop similar-sized animals."
He said bears, wolves, tigers, snow leopards, and large herbivores like the saiga antelope, Mongolian gazelle, and khulan (Asiatic wild ass), are some of the species they are most concerned about.
Trouwborst said that while their paper focused on Eurasia, the U.S.-Mexico border wall has the same negative impacts on wildlife and "it has been documented to impair the mobility of myriad creatures, e.g. cougars, jaguars, mule deer, roadrunners, snakes, lizards, and frogs."
Using open source tools provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Outside Magazine recently determined that if Donald Trump built a wall along the entire 1,989-mile border between the United States and Mexico, it could potentially impact 111 endangered species, 108 species of migratory birds, and four wildlife refugees.