Although much of Arizona is dominated by arid, desert habitats, the state is also home to a diverse and extensive amount of forest and woodlands. From lower-elevation chaparral to higher-elevation Alpine forests and even tundra, this variety of forested habitats in Arizona contributes to the state’s high biodiversity. These forest and woodland habitats cover approximately 18.6 million acres or roughly 25% of the state. Not only do these areas offer quality habitats for fish and wildlife, but they also play an important role as an economic driver, providing vast areas for recreational opportunities such as hiking, camping, fishing, and hunting. Meanwhile, forests and woodlands around the state provide essential ecological services, in particular helping to provide clean drinking water for the people of Arizona. The state hosts six distinct forest and woodland types that occur in a range of elevations.
Typically, a dense thicket of shrubs and small tree species, chaparral habitats occur at elevation of 4,000 to 6,000 feet. This habitat type is dominated by manzanita and shrub live oak. Chaparral thickets can be nearly impenetrable in certain areas. Because of the dense canopy that forms in chaparral, forbs and grasses are limited, except in scattered openings or immediately after fire events. Other plant species abundant in chaparral are birchleaf mountain-mahogany, skunkbush sumac, silktassels, and desert ceanothus. Prickly-pear cactus, agaves and yucca species commonly grow alongside chaparral shrubs. Most wildlife species that occur in chaparral are widespread and common. Since chaparral is a transitional habitat, the SGCN that are found here also occur in woodland or grassland habitats where chaparral meets those communities at its upper elevation limits, or in desertscrub at lower elevations (Brown and Makings 2014). Some SGCN found in chaparral include Arizona night lizard, Bezy’s night lizard, and black-chinned sparrow.
The total area occupied by chaparral has remained largely unchanged over the past century, however, these systems were subjected to treatments such as mechanical manipulation and herbicides in the mid-20th Century in an effort to increase water yield and grazing potential. Because of their high accessibility and relatively gentle terrain, these ecosystems were heavily grazed by goats until 1940. This habitat is fire-adapted and quickly regenerates following fire events (Pase and Brown 1994). See the chaparral habitat profile for more details.
Madrean woodland habitats typically occur at elevations between 5,000 and 7,000 ft. above sea level and are dominated by evergreen tree species such as oaks, juniper, and pine. In southern and central Arizona, Madrean woodlands dominate the sky islands, a loose network of mountain ranges scattered throughout the arid desert environments. Common tree species found here include Emory oak, silverleaf oak, Mexican blue oak, alligator bark juniper, and Mexican pinyon pine. In some areas, open savannahs are common in Madrean woodland habitats. In addition, tall tree canopies allow for grasses to flourish in some areas. Several SGCN species are found in Madrean woodland habitats that are not found anywhere else in Arizona, including barking frog, brown vine snake, ridge-nosed rattlesnake, Montezuma quail, Mexican jay, bridled titmouse, southern pocket gopher, and Huachuca talussnail.
Total area occupied by Madrean woodlands has largely remained unchanged over the years, however this habitat type is experiencing alterations to community composition. About 77% of this habitat type has experienced moderate alterations with about 6% experiencing severe alterations. These changes are mostly attributed to fire and fire suppression (McPherson 1992). As a result Madrean woodlands have a moderate risk of losing key community components over time (USFS data; Schmidt et al. 2002). About 20% of Madrean woodlands are within areas managed with permanent protection (TNC 2004). See the Madrean woodland habitat profile for more details.
Great Basin Conifer Woodland
Great Basin conifer woodlands occur at elevations between 3,400 and 8,800 feet and is dominated by juniper and pinyon-pine species. Colorado pinyon-pine is the characteristic species throughout nearly the entire zone. North of the Mogollon Rim, Utah and one-seed juniper are intermixed with pinyon-pine. In the northwest portion of the state, singleleaf pinyon grows intermixed with Utah juniper. South of the Rim alligator juniper is commonly found. A tall canopy occasionally allows for other habitat types of habitats to grow beneath, such as grasslands, desertscrub, or chaparral. Several SGCN species are unique to this habitat, including juniper titmouse, gray flycatcher, and pinyon jay.
Over the past century, Great Basin conifer woodlands have been significantly altered by changes in fire regimes and fire suppression. Livestock grazing, along with mechanical and chemical treatments have also contributed to these changes over the years (Stevens and Monson 2004). Because of overgrown, dense tree canopies and the presence of invasive grass species, potential for devastating crown fires has increased dramatically in recent decades (Gruell 1999, Tausch 1999). Because of this Great Basin conifer woodlands have a moderate risk of losing key ecosystem components (Schmidt et al. 2002). Pinyon pines, which are a key component of this community, have recently experienced widespread mortality due to drought and insects (Breshears et al. 2005, USFS 2005). About 69% of this community is within areas managed with permanent protection for a primarily natural state (TNC 2004). See the Great Basin conifer woodland habitat profile for more details.
Petran Montane Conifer Forest
Found at elevations between 6,000 and 9,000 feet, Petran montane conifer forests are dominated by ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and white fir. Other common tree species include southwestern white pine, Gambel oak, limber pine, bigtooth maple, and quaking aspen. High, dense canopies create open park-like understories, permitting a healthy understory of grasses, shrubs, forbs, and broadleaf trees. In southern Arizona, Petran montane conifer is also found in the sky islands, the high-elevation habitats found atop scattered mountain ranges. Several SGCN species occur here, including: northern leopard frog, mountain treefrog, dusky grouse, Mexican spotted owl, evening grosbeak, red crossbill, New Mexico jumping mouse, and Wet Canyon talussnail.
Changes in fire regime and forest management have resulted in changes to community composition and structure. In some areas, well-spaced groups of mature trees are now dense thickets of younger trees, resulting in a reduced diversity of grasses, forbs, and the understory community. Disease, insect infestation, and high-intensity crown fires are also adversely affecting this forest habitat. According to USFS data, about 58% of Petran montane conifer forests have altered fire regimes that are contributing to these changes in community composition (Schmidt et al. 2002). The region’s persistent drought, along with higher winter temperatures, have led to widespread die-off in ponderosa pines, affecting 1.3 million acres (27% of total distribution in Arizona) during 2002-2004 (USFS 2005). These standing dead trees increase fuel loads, contributing to more severe fires in the future. Only about 7.6% of Petran montane conifer area is within areas managed with permanent protection for a primarily natural state (TNC 2004). See the Petran montane conifer forest habitat profile for more details.
Petran Subalpine Conifer Forests
Petran subalpine conifer forests occur at elevations between 8,000 and 9,000 feet, and are usually a mix of coniferous and deciduous species. Dominant fir species include Engelmann spruce, blue spruce, corkbark fir, white fir, Douglas fir, bristlecone pine, and limber pine. Quaking aspen is the dominant deciduous species and can be found in dense stands intermixed with the fir species. Dense canopies mostly prevent the growth of grasses, forbs, and other understory vegetation. Some SGCN species found in Petran subalpine conifer habitats include northern pocket gopher, southern red-backed vole, Williamson’s sapsucker, Canada jay, Lincoln’s sparrow, and pine grosbeak.
Petran subalpine conifer forests are extremely limited in distribution. As such they have been disproportionately affected by human disturbance and development, including ski areas, communication towers and observatories (Patten and Stromberg 1995; Dahms and Geils 1997). Approximately 32% of the total Petran subalpine conifer habitat area found in Arizona (about 77,000 acres) is experiencing significant tree mortality, mostly due to drought conditions and insect infestation (USFS 2003, 2004, 2005).
Changes to fire regimes and fire suppression are also affecting Petran subalpine conifer habitats. Historically, these habitats were insulated from fire by the surrounding lower-elevation fire-resistant mixed conifer. However, a century of fire suppression has resulted in increased tree density. The fuel loads in mixed conifer habitats is leading to more frequent and intense wildfires. As a result, Petran subalpine conifer habitats are now also being lost to fire and disease. According to the USFS, approximately 79% of the Petran subalpine conifer forests have fire regimes which are severely altered from their historical range, creating a high risk of losing key ecosystem components due to destructive crown fires (USFS data; Schmidt et al. 2002). See the Petran subalpine conifer forest habitat profile for more details.
Alpine tundra habitats are extremely limited in Arizona and found only in highest elevations between 11,000 and 12,600 feet. Tundra habitats are found only on two mountain peaks, both in the San Francisco Mountains of northern Arizona. These high-elevation habitats are characterized by extreme cold temperatures, which prevent the establishment of most trees and succulent species. The dominant plants that are found in tundra habitats include low-lying woody shrubs and perennial herbs. Few SGCN inhabit this region that are not found elsewhere in the state, with the exception of the dwarf shrew that is often found in tundra and in nearby subalpine meadows (Hoffmeister 1986). This is also the only part of the state where white-crowned sparrows breed.
The only significant stressor to tundra habitats is human disturbance, mostly trampling and other disturbance by hikers. However, due to the tundra’s limited range, climate change could lead to significant reductions in this community due to an upward shift in treeline (Bowman et al. 2002; Tuhy et al. 2002). See the alpine tundra habitat profile for more details.
Approximately 46% of Arizona’s forest and woodland systems are managed by the USFS in national forests such as the Coronado and Chiricahua national forests in the south to the Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves forests in the north (TNC 2005). Meanwhile approximately 39% of forested lands in Arizona is in private lands (Shaw et al. 2018), emphasizing the importance of public-private partnerships to help conserve and protect forest and woodland habitats throughout the state.
Conserving Arizona’s forest and woodland systems is becoming increasingly complicated. Prolonged drought, increasing frequency and intensity of forest fires, invasive species, and habitat alterations from both climate change and development, all have significant and long-lasting effects on these systems. More than ever before, inter-agency collaboration along with public/private partnerships will be critical to maintain a healthy future for our forest and woodland systems.
Currently, there are several local, state, and national initiatives that have implemented public/private partnerships to accomplish forest and woodland conservation in Arizona:
AZGFD has helped shape a coalition of hunter-focused NGOs that help conserve forest and woodland species and habitats. Some of the groups include the Mule Deer Foundation, Arizona Elk Society, and Arizona Mule Deer Organization.
United States Forest Service, Four-Forest Restoration Initiative (USFS-4FRI) is working towards restoration of the ponderosa pine ecosystem across the Mogollon Rim in Arizona.
White Mountain Stewardship has completed thousands of acres of cooperative projects to reduce fuel loading and improve forest health in the White Mountains of Arizona.
AZGFD Habitat Partnership Committee funds projects through the sale of Special Big Tags and many of those projects are cooperative projects between AZGFD, land management agencies and private landowners.
AZGFD Landowner Incentive Program works cooperatively with private landowners to improve forest health and restore grasslands in areas where woodlands have encroached.
Some of the more specific plans to forest and woodland species and their habitats can be found in each of the individual habitat profiles (with web links). Examples include:
Mountain Lion and Bear Conservation Strategy
Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan
Mule Deer Management Plan
Some of the broader, regional or state-wide plans to protect forest and woodland habitats can also be found in each of the individual habitat profiles (with web links). Examples include:
Southwest Mule Deer Habitat Guidelines