Arizona balances wildlife conservation, urban development

For a desert, Arizona has a lot of life. It is the inland state with the highest wildlife diversity and has one of the nation’s fastest growing human populations. The Wild West is not quite so wild anymore, and saguaros and suburbia do not make for happy neighbors. All that life has to live somewhere.

It is a tricky balance between wildlife conservation and urban development across the state, but the high biodiversity in Pima County makes the buzz all the louder.

A public meeting on Thursday, Feb. 21 invited the public to discuss Pima County’s Multi-Species Conservation Plan (MSCP), which tries to strike this balance through a permit under Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Basically, the plan provides sweeping coverage to legal, county projects that accidentally harm, or “take,” a species listed in the ESA. The plan acknowledges that development infringes upon natural habitats, but it promises to compensate through other, widespread efforts toward wildlife conservation. Currently, this happens on a project-by-project basis. The request would allow the county to focus more on regional conservation than individual species.

The plan has been in the works for about 12 years and, if approved, will not be formally enacted until 2014. The movement toward a more comprehensive conservation plan started in 1997 with the listing of the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl as endangered. In 2006, the animal was delisted, but the controversy culminated in the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. The MSCP is part of that vision.

“We heard that the community wanted more than a single species response,” said Julia Fonseca, the environmental planning manager for the county, at the meeting. “We wanted to look at other factors like land use allocation and how we would deal with ranging species or species that might be common today but not in the future.”

The county’s plan protects 44 species that might suffer as development progresses for the next 30 years, or until 36,000 acres of land have been impacted. Scott Richardson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) biologist for Arizona, believes that the plan’s inclusion of species beyond the endangered and threatened list gives it consistency and plans for the unexpected.

“You never go into a project intending to harm a species,” Fonseca said. “You’re building a school or a home, but if you cut down a tree with a nest of an endangered bird, you have to do something for that species.”

Across the state, the conflict extends beyond individual species and isolated habitats.

“You have to look at connecting one landscape to another,” said Tom Jones, a manager at the nongame branch of the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD). “As populations expand, and roads are built in new places, we have to assure that there are underpasses or overpasses for wildlife before it’s too late.”

Freeways fragment habitats, and some animals, like pronghorn antelope, will not cross roads. Other species, like the elusive jaguar, have large home ranges. The jaguars spotted in Arizona are males likely wandering from their core habitats in Mexico, according to the USFWS, though scientists have no certain confirmation of jaguar origins. Last fall, several motion-detecting cameras photographed one of these lone rangers.

A moutain lion crouches in its enclosure at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Ariz. on Feb. 18, 2009. The museum educates guests through wildlife encounters (Photo by J.N. Stuart, posted on, used through Creative Commons Licensing).
“Whatever critters you’re talking about have a home range where they do all their eating and breeding and their natural life history,” said John Windes an AZGFD habitat program manager. “There are critters that are tied to one spot, but then there are animals that move around or migrate. Animals like black bears or mountain lions or jaguars that move from one mountain range to the next might have a core habitat, but they also need to be able to move through areas.”

The MSCP does not include jaguars as a species threatened by take. The county recently decided that the approximately 150,000 acres of proposed jaguar habitat could host ranching and recreational activities, among others, without damaging jaguar critical habitat or severing its connection to Mexico.

Using land for multiple purposes can happen in the middle of nowhere or the center of a city, making this conflict relevant to anyone.

“Developers use access to trails as a marketing feature,” said Michael Baker, the president of Volunteers for Outdoor Arizona, an organization that recruits volunteers to conserve habitats and trails across the state. “In the past, developers would acquire land in the desert and mow everything down and then build something and bring in faux desert landscape to replace it.”

Today, a lot more is done to integrate the natural and developed, and the policies that determine conservation and species’ survival require public participation—even from suburbanites.

“Tucson itself still has so much natural habitat within it,” Windes said. “It wasn’t farmland that became city. Tucson is the desert, and being connected to nature in your daily life helps with habitat conservation.”

The ESA targets individual species, but most experts in wildlife conservation agree that a regional perspective is the key to protecting Arizona’s natural life in the midst of a growing population.

“The problem is the economy of our state is based on growth itself, and how sustainable is that?” Windes said. “You can’t grow forever. You run out of something.”

Conservationists are concerned that wildlife will get the short end of the stick. At the meeting, an audience member asked if the proposed plan would draw from the county’s general fund, forcing the board to choose between fixing potholes or preserving habitats. Potholes would win that battle, she said. The permit would initially cost about $570,000 annually, according to county estimates, “and then level out at about $1.2 million” after full implementation a few years later.

“[The board] makes those decisions everyday,” Fonseca responded. “If we don’t do this, it’s rather dire. This community has a balance of terror between the developers and environmentalists.”

The plan seeks to let development move forward without permanently destroying species.

“Once you tear up the desert, it takes a long time before in comes back,” Baker said. “We want to preserve this, and when people get involved, engagement takes it from an abstract idea that you know is the right thing to believe in to something more concrete.”

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