Arizona Wildlife Conservation Strategy

Conservation Opportunity Areas (COAs)

While the previous section described the various conservation actions to help reduce or eliminate threats to wildlife and their habitats, the question remains: Where on the landscape is it most important for us to implement these actions? The AWCS answers this question with the development of Conservation Opportunity Areas (COAs). This is a mechanism for prioritizing on-the-ground conservation by identifying specific locations on the landscape where investments are most likely to lead to substantial gains for wildlife. The COAs were created to help implement the AWCS and should be considered voluntary guidance for specific areas where conservation efforts would be most effective, based on species and habitat expertise, as well as wildlife and spatial data. COAs reflect the best areas for conservation and were determined without regard to jurisdiction and landownership. In addition, COAs will not be subject to any new regulations nor do they have any regulatory effect.

We created two broad categories of COAs, terrestrial and aquatic. Both terrestrial and aquatic COAs are intended to complement each other and in many cases are located in the same area. Visit the map of COAs that's part of the AWCS.

Identifying Terrestrial COAs

To identify terrestrial COAs, AZGFD used the latest data and expertise and also incorporated input from outside organizations, agencies, and individuals. Terrestrial COAs represent geographic areas with high conservation value and high potential for successful project outcomes. Terrestrial COAs vary in size, from just a few acres where the conservation goal might focus on a single spring that is home to an endemic springsnail species, to entire mountain ranges, where the conservation goals apply to a larger landscape and include the protection of an Important Bird Area (IBA) or several wide-ranging SGCN. Whether large or small, every terrestrial COA was required to have one or more of the following conservation attributes:

  • Areas where threatened and endangered species have been documented

  • Areas with high wildlife diversity including SGCN

  • Riparian areas and other specialized habitats

  • Proximity to protected lands

  • Areas that contribute to a known movement corridor

Identifying areas of high conservation value was just one step in the terrestrial COA process. Conservation efforts, of course, are inherently limited by resources such as funding, staff hours, and land ownership. To ensure success, we carefully analyzed each potential terrestrial  COA, and refined our final list, to make sure each site possessed qualities that would lead to successful on-the-ground conservation efforts. Examples of qualities that affect the potential for success and were therefore an integral part of the COA evaluation process include:

  • Land ownership/jurisdiction

  • Feasibility of conservation actions and project success

  • Costs associated with protection or implementation of activities

  • Likelihood of partner involvement

The following datasets were used to help identify and refine terrestrial COAs:

  • Arizona HDMS data, including Element Occurrences (EOs) and Point Observation Data (PODs)

  • AZGFD Species Observation Data

  • Brown and Lowe’s Biotic Communities of the Southwest (1994)

  • The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient and Connected Network (2016)

The terrestrial COAs were then subjected to review by an internal team of species and habitat specialists. The COAs were further refined to remove areas on Tribal lands. Teams then created detailed COA profiles for each, examples of which are available at the end of this chapter. 

Identifying Aquatic COAs

To identify aquatic COAs, we used AZGFD’s Watershed-based Fish Management Process (WFMP). This process provides systematic, data-driven methods to develop fisheries management plans at various scales. The WFMP was first implemented in 2009 to develop watershed management plans with the goal of balancing sportfish opportunities with conservation and restoration of Arizona’s native aquatic wildlife resources. (We applied this process to identify COAs in the lentic and lotic habitat types. Wetlands and springs COAs were identified using the terrestrial COA method describe above.) Through the WFMP process, AZGFD has developed plans for nearly 800 management units across the state. These plans were then assigned a management priority:    

  • High: Management units that presently contain threatened, endangered, candidate, or proposed native aquatics species with a signed conservation agreement and/or the presence of critical habitat. 

  • Medium: Management units containing other native aquatic species with multiple age classes. 

  • Low: Management units where native aquatic species are rare, non-sustainable, or not present. 

 To identify aquatic COAs, AZGFD chose all units identified as “high” priority (N=166) and “medium” priority (N=110). Several other management units with “low” priority or no priority were also selected as aquatic COAs where AZGFD expertise felt that the unit warranted special conservation value as a COA. Ultimately, AZGFD identified more than 302 aquatic COAs and 130 terrestrial COAs. Complete lists of COAs can be found in Appendix G: Aquatic Conservation Opportunity Areas (COAs) and Appendix H: Terrestrial Conservation Opportunity Areas (COAs). A brief list of COAs by habitat type can be found in Chapter 7: Habitat Profiles

COA Profiles

Following the identification of each COA, AZGFD staff created a detailed profile for each that will be available on the AWCS website. A map of current COAs identified for inclusion in the AWCS is found below (Figure 6) and example COA profiles can be found at the end of this chapter. These COA profiles should be considered voluntary guidance for where conservation efforts would be most effective, according to AZGFD data and staff expertise. Main components of each COA profile include:

COA Description

Narrative that describes the COA, including habitat descriptions, immediate threats, potential conservation actions and other pertinent information.

Primary Threats and Conservation Actions

Similar to the Habitat Profiles in the AWCS, the COA profiles include primary threats and conservation actions using the standardized lexicon defined by Salafsky et al (2008). In addition, conservation actions outline specific actions that can be taken to address primary threats in the COA.

Strategy Species

For each COA we created a new category of priority wildlife, known as Strategy Species. This list of species is primarily SGCN (Tiers 1, 2, and 3) that are known to occur, or have potential to occur, within the defined boundaries of the COA. Strategy Species were initially identified by crosswalking Arizona Heritage Data Management System (HDMS) records, including element occurrence data (EO) and point observation data (POD). The list of Strategy Species was then further refined by species and habitat experts. While the Strategy Species are primarily SGCN Tiers 1, 2, and 3, we also added some game and non-SGCN species when warranted, if that species plays an outsized role in the ecosystem, such as American beaver or elk (see definition of Other Influential Species on p. 91). Ultimately, the Strategy Species list reflects a prioritized list of species that may benefit from conservation actions within that particular COA. 

Potential Partners

Identifies potential partners, including government agnecies, NGOs, recreation clubs, and other organizations that are associated with the COA or Strategy Species. Partners are completely voluntary and only recommendations identified by AZGFD as to which agencies and organizations may collaborate to implement conservation actions.

Relevant Conservation Plans

Provides links to important documents that are relevant to habitat and species conservation within the COA, such as species recovery plans, land management plans, and so on.