Arizona Report States Habitat Linkage Critical

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A potential key to conserving wildlife and making highways safer as our state continues to grow was made public today with the release of Arizona's first-ever statewide Wildlife Linkages Assessment.

The report, a two-year collaboration between state and federal agencies, conservation groups and a higher educational institution, identifies 150 "linkage zones" - areas connecting places where wildlife lives—that are important to animal movement and migration.

"ADOT is fortunate to be collaborating with visionary partners who are committed to assuring Arizona remains a viable, healthy place in which every species can thrive," says Sam Elters, state engineer for the Arizona Department of Transportation. "This report will serve as a valuable resource for planning and designing future infrastructure improvements."

The burgeoning growth of Arizona's population and infrastructure—roads, fences, railroads, canals and urban development—has fragmented wildlife habitat or created barriers that can inhibit some species from moving between habitat areas.

"Some animals are dependent on the connecting areas to reach food and water sources or to migrate to areas important in their ranges," says Ray Schweinsburg, research program supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "Anything that creates a barrier effect can isolate wildlife and disrupt the ecology of an area. Habitat fragmentation is recognized as one of the main causes of species declines, and even extinctions, globally."

The assessment is a resource for planners and engineers, providing suggestions for the incorporation of linkage zones into their project planning. If linkage considerations can be integrated early in the planning process, these areas have better potential to be maintained or conserved.

The Arizona Wildlife Linkages Workgroup began collaborating in April 2004, beginning with the "Missing Linkages" workshop that brought together biologists, engineers, planners and land managers to share information. Since then, the group has worked together to identify large blocks of protected habitat, the potential wildlife movement corridors through and between them, factors that could possibly disrupt the corridors, and opportunities for conservation.

"The assessment released today is just the initial step in what will be a continuing effort to identify and map potential linkage zones that are important to Arizona's wildlife and natural ecosystems," says Paul Beier, professor of conservation biology and wildlife ecology at Northern Arizona University.

"This has been a tremendous learning experience for everyone at the table," says Janice Przybyl, wildlife linkages project coordinator with the Sky Island Alliance. "While road engineers are becoming appreciative of the ecological needs of wildlife, wildlife biologists are gaining insights into the process of highway construction. Having a common language is empowering and can help move us toward implementation of transportation infrastructure that facilitates landscape permeability for Arizona's wildlife."

Members of the Arizona Wildlife Linkages Workgroup are the Arizona Department of Transportation, Arizona Game and Fish Department, Bureau of Land Management, Federal Highway Administration, Northern Arizona University, Sky Island Alliance, USDA Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Wildlands Project.

The group was formed after the success of another multi-partner project: the reconstruction and expansion of State Route 260 east of Payson. That project has used radio telemetry tracking of elk, underpass construction, and fencing placement research to create design features that have reduced collisions with elk, while still permitting the animals to more easily get across the highway.

The Arizona Wildlife Linkages Workgroup was awarded a national "Exemplary Ecosystem Initiative" award from the Federal Highway Administration and a state "Showcase in Excellence" award from the Arizona Quality Alliance this year.

"This effort can help agencies, planners, private landowners and other stakeholders work together with a coordinated approach toward conservation and highway safety goals. The linkages assessment is a step forward in protecting Arizona’s wildlife as the state addresses the challenges associated with accommodating for the growth of Arizona's population and economy," says Lori Faeth, Gov. Janet Napolitano’s policy adviser for natural resources, agriculture and the environment.

The full assessment is expected to be posted on the Arizona Department of Transportation Web site at www.azdot.gov within the next two weeks.