All-Women Film Team Takes on Border Wall on Behalf of All At-Risk Wildlife

tawny emperor butterfly
A tawny emperor butterfly at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. This 100-acre private preserve hosts more than 200 species of butterfly, many of which are not found anywhere else in the U.S.

When you think about the border wall, it's easy to slip into the economics of it, the culture clashes, the racial tensions, and sadly, even the flame wars on Twitter among politicians. But have you stopped to consider what else is deeply harmed and irreversibly altered by the border wall?

The wall isn't being built on stretches of empty desert, but across fragile and diverse habitats utilized by a wide range of species, many of which migrate across land without an understanding of international boundaries, and many of which are as fragile as the habitat where they live.

Taking up the megaphone for the cause is a trio of conservation photographers and videographers. They've traveled the edges of the border following the story of a rare community of butterflies that exist in the first sanctuary set to be bulldozed by border wall construction teams. They are following the story of two women who stand on the front lines of the battle to save this butterfly habitat. Bulldozers soon are expected to start plowing the protected habitat in order to make room for the wall after the Supreme Court rebuffed a challenge by environmental groups in December.

"Ay, Mariposa" is a documentary film currently in the making that takes on a difficult and controversial subject, and it tells the story with empathy, grace, and fierce determination. We spoke with Krista Schlyer, one of the film team members and a conservation photographer who has been documenting the border wall issue for a decade. (In fact, we talked with Schlyer several years ago about why the area is so crucial for wildlife.) She provides insights about why this butterfly sanctuary plays such a critical role in the bigger fight for all wildlife along the border.

Border wall protests have been ongoing in South Texas since the Trump administration announced in 2017 its intention to target the Lower Rio Grande for border wall construction. (Photo: Krista Schlyer)

Treehugger: You've been covering the issue of the border wall for about a decade now. What's the driving focus of your latest project about the issue?

Krista Schlyer: My latest project is a collaboration with filmmakers Jenny Nichols and Morgan Heim on a film called "Ay Mariposa," set in South Texas.

For the past couple of years, since border wall construction came to the forefront of the Trump presidency, the most immediate threats have centered on an endangered ecosystem in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Unlike other locations along the border, in the valley, the wall is not being built on the border, because the border is the Rio Grande River. It is instead being built into the Rio Grande Levee, which lies up to two miles north of the river. So it slices through neighborhoods, through wildlife refuges and other private and public preserves, and through historic sites that lie along the river.

One of the locations it will cut through is the National Butterfly Center, a private preserve dedicated to restoring habitat for the 340 butterfly species that can be found in the valley. If the wall is built, it will destroy decades of restoration work by scraping away butterfly host plants and putting about 70 percent of the preserve habitat behind the border wall.

Through this film project, "Ay Mariposa," we are documenting the fight of Marianna Trevino Wright, director of the Butterfly Center, against wall construction.

But the intention behind the film is to show something more, the deep connection between the lives of humans and wildlife, the rich cultural tapestry of the borderlands, and the beauty and peril of the butterfly world.

Zulema Hernandez, a lifelong advocate for wildlife and human rights, at a protest against border wall construction on the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas. Zulema is a subject of the new film. (Photo: Krista Schlyer)

Why 'Ay, Mariposa' for the title of this film?

Taken literally, the title translates from Spanish: "Oh butterfly." In my mind, it is a statement of apprehension for what may happen, and a lament for what has already happened to the natural world at the hands of the U.S. federal government. It is a statement of sorrow over what we have done and continue to do to challenge the existence of the exquisite, delicate butterfly.

But even beyond that, on a more symbolic level, it is an expression of sadness for what we are doing to ourselves. In the film, one of our three main characters, Zulema Hernandez, is in some ways a butterfly herself. She emigrated from Mexico about 40 years ago and worked all her life as a migrant worker. She has seen so much in her lifetime and has for many years used her voice to be an advocate for both human rights and wildlife conservation, especially butterflies.

When I met her in 2017 at a protest against wall construction at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, she struck me as someone whose story needed to be heard by America, as a resistance against the false narrative that politicians have painted of migrants and the border.

So "Ay Mariposa" as a title also conveys a lamentation for how our society has for so long mistreated and maligned people they do not understand.

Bighorn sheep travel frequently across the U.S.-Mexico border in search of water, food and mates. Their survival in the region will be tied to migration pathways threatened by the wall. (Photo: Krista Schlyer)

This is a question I'm sure you're asked often: With so many human rights issues at the forefront of the border wall conversation, why should we focus on the fate of wildlife in the Southwest?

I don't believe these issues can be separated. The future of wildlife and humans is intertwined and nowhere is this more evident than on the border.

I started this project 10 years ago to fight for wildlife, but I found as I learned more and more about the region and its history, that the story of people was too deeply connected to be ignored.

The militarization of the border has hurt wildlife and people in equal measures. More than 7,000 people have died trying to cross the border as walls and militarization sent them further and further into the wilderness. That same policy of division and militarization has pushed hundreds of species already on the brink of extinction further toward that abyss.

People who live on the border have had their communities thrown into turmoil as a climate of checkpoints, surveillance and racial profiling has been escalated with every new presidential administration since the 1980s. Congress has been derelict in throwing billions upon billions of dollars into militarization that is destroying the borderlands environment, terrorizing its citizens, and literally killing some of the poorest and most desperate people in the Western Hemisphere.

Humans and the natural world cannot be separated. But even if one cannot help but do so, I would suggest that the future of wildlife on the border must be considered as equal to the fate of people, for the simple reason that we are in the middle of a human-caused global extinction crisis, and we have a moral responsibility to do everything we can to protect the natural world from further threats, wherever they may be.

Texas tortoises are one of many species already being affected by border wall construction. In 2010, hundreds of these state-protected tortoises drowned when the border wall trapped floodwaters for weeks on national wildlife refuge property. (Photo: Krista Schlyer)

The butterfly is the leading character of the story, but there are many species impacted by the border wall. What's another example of a species affected by construction and barriers in the Southwest?

Yes, there are numerous species threatened by border wall construction, all along this 2,000-mile border. More than 180 threatened and endangered species live on the border and many of them depend on open migration corridors between the United States and Mexico.

The jaguar, for instance, is critically endangered in the United States, and it's only real hope of recovery lies in the migration of jaguars from the northernmost breeding population of this cat, which lies just south of the border.

Restoration of Mexican gray wolves, ocelots, jaguarundis, Texas tortoises, bison, bighorn sheep, and Sonoran pronghorn is similarly tied to free access to food, water, habitat, and mates that lie on either side of the border. It's easy to conceive of how a wall would be problematic to terrestrial species, by blocking migrations and access to resources, but much less attention is paid to the threat of habitat destruction, which affects birds, butterflies, and all other species.

The greatest diversity of birds and butterflies in the United States exists in the borderlands, and many of those are dependent on habitat that is being destroyed by wall construction.

Border wall construction began in South Texas in 2008 under the Bush administration. Much of the construction destroyed and fragmented rare remnant habitat in Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Krista Schlyer)

To loop this back around to the human element, what can we do as individuals concerned about conservation, especially when we live far away from 'ground zero'?

Members of Congress, from both parties, have been voting in favor of border wall funding for the past few years, for the past decade. They do this because they think their constituents in Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, don't care about the border wall, don't care about wildlife, or are not paying any attention to what is happening. I've actually heard this more than once in Congress, "My constituents don't care about wildlife; come up with another reason to oppose this wall."

They need to know you care, they need to know you are watching what they are doing, how they are voting.

Look up their record on the Secure Fence Act of 2006, and on the appropriations bills in 2017 and 2018. Did they vote for those bills? Call them up and tell them what you think about that. Let them know you are opposed to border walls and fences and let them know why.

If you are angry, show them that you are. We will never change this situation until those far away from "ground zero" get as angry as those who live there, and let their members of Congress know that their jobs depend on changing the course we are on.

How did your creative team of photographers and videographers form? What brought you all together?

Fate? I had hoped to tell the story of Zulema Hernandez and Marianna Trevino Wright and the North American butterfly, but I just happened upon a conversation with my friends Jenny Nichols, Morgan Heim, and another filmmaker Allison Otto, that brought it into focus at just the right time.

You know how those things go, you have a conversation and that's the end of it, but this was different. By the end of our talk, we had all agreed to buy plane tickets and leave a week later for South Texas to start filming. We had no funding, but the idea had taken hold.

I have worked with Jenny and Morgan for years, and they had always been supportive of The Borderlands Project, but this was a chance to really collaborate for the first time and thankfully, everyone jumped at it!

A soldier butterfly at the National Butterfly Center, a private preserve that protects rare butterfly habitat. The Trump administration plans to take this private land through eminent domain to build the border wall. (Photo: Krista Schlyer)

As a photographer and writer, what has it been like for you to work on this issue through the medium of video? How do you think this might affect people in ways that still images and words cannot?

Coming from a photographer's background, working in film is in some ways incredibly challenging, and in some ways liberating. Luckily Morgan and Jenny are pros at film production. With filmmaking, there is so much to keep track of that you don't really have to think about in photography.

But film can also be more forgiving in some ways, and it offers a whole world of communication tools not available in photography. It is very difficult to convey what is happening on the border in one image, or even a single magazine story. It's a complex issue. With this film, we can help people see more deeply into the lives of our characters, the challenges they face, and the ties that bind them all together in this one fight against the border wall.

I enjoy the challenge of scriptwriting and it's been a powerful experience for me to get to know Zulema, Marianna, and the butterfly so well, and to try to work out in my mind how to convey their beautiful, courageous, and sometimes sorrowful lives to a viewer who will never meet them. I believe it will make a difference to someone in Ohio or Nebraska who knows only what they see on the news.

What have you discovered or explored during filming so far that has surprised you, or made a significant impact on the story you're documenting?

So much. One element of the film is to try and rebuild the memories of our characters Zulema and Marianna. Zulema has stories of being a migrant worker that has just blown me away. These are things I've read about in my research on environmental justice issues, but I had never known anybody who had experienced them. Sorry, I can't be more specific, you'll have to watch the film.

But I've also been surprised by what I've learned about the lives of butterflies. I would need a film 24 hours in length to convey the awe that I have for these creatures. Their evolution and physiology, how they interact with their environment, how they survive in a world where the odds are so stacked against them, just leave me in absolute wonder.

And the beauty, there are no words, which is why this film feels so powerful.

How To Support 'Ay, Mariposa'

You're working on a fundraising campaign to bring the film to fruition. When that film is finalized and put out into the world, what are your hopes for its impact on viewers, and on the larger conservation issue?

Yes, we are raising funds through Indiegogo, hoping we can get broad support for bringing "Ay Mariposa" to the largest possible audience.

When the film is finished, we plan to screen it for members of Congress and those who they listen to. We also plan a grassroots film festival project that I hope will inspire tens of thousands of people to get involved in the democratic process, speak up for wildlife and the borderlands, and take agency over how their tax dollars are being spent. If you would like to support all wildlife at the border, call your members of Congress today and let them know how you feel, and how you vote.