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Academic work on the problem is just beginning.

A study earlier this year by Aaron D. Flesch, a graduate student at the University of Montana, suggested that the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl, which was at one point listed as an endangered species, generally flies far lower than the height of the border fence — suggesting that the species’ population could be split in two. The same study also found that Desert Bighorn Sheep could face localized extinctions because populations are cut off from one another by fencing.

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There are lives at stake here. Each year, dozens of immigrants unable to handle miles-long walks through heat that averages 100-degree highs in the summer are found dead on public lands. Thousands more give up and light signal fires or use emergency-call stations to summon help.

To combat that, humanitarian groups regularly cart water out to the remote regions of the border. And that’s what prompted Mr. Hawkes to print up his “Littering is always a crime” bumper sticker. It was meant to send a message to one group in particular, No More Deaths, a volunteer group that had dropped the water jugs along popular immigrant trails through the refuge, and who named its campaign “Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime.”

“They’ve become just as much of a problem as the illegals,” Mr. Hawkes said. It’s so bad that he’s asked — and the local U.S. attorney has agreed — to take the littering cases to court. Two men have been convicted, and more than a dozen are awaiting trial.

The Rev. Gene Lefebvre, who works with No More Deaths, said the group has asked that the littering cases be dropped. And after operating outside the law, they’re now in negotiations with Mr. Hawkes to try to get official sanction for their activities.

Mr. Lefebvre says his group had a brief meeting with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and since then, negotiations with Mr. Hawkes on a compromise have made progress. No More Deaths has even offered to haul out trash every time they go in with their water jugs, and to make sure they carry out more than they carry in.

“Border Patrol is not our enemy. Neither is Mike. We want to come out of this with a solution that lets more migrants live, and we’ll be happy with that, and make every effort on the environmental side to make Mike’s jobs better,” he said.

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For years, the rugged, remote nature of southern Arizona was its main protection against incursions by illegal immigrants. It was far easier for immigrants to go through more populated areas in California and Texas, so Arizona was spared.

But in the 1990s, the Border Patrol closed down those urban corridors, pushing the illegal flows straight into Arizona and the most fragile parts of the Sonoran Desert. The drug smugglers soon followed suit. The cartels’ ability to adapt to the changing circumstances north of the border is remarkable.

One innovation was to post spotters inside the U.S., oftentimes on federal lands, to keep track of Border Patrol and other law enforcement movements. The one-man rock nest on a ridgeline overlooking Interstate 8 at Milemarker 141 is typical. The spot is well-camouflaged and if it weren’t for the pile of empty Bud Light cans and water bottles with Spanish labels, almost impossible to spot unless you knew exactly where to look.

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