Arizona Wildlife Conservation Strategy

1. Agriculture

Agriculture is an important industry and way of life in Arizona. According to a recent report by the Arizona Department of Agriculture, the industry generated $23.3 billion for Arizona’s economy in 2018 while supporting more than 138,000 full- and part-time jobs (Bickel et al. 2017). Our agricultural lands produce a variety of food crops and goods, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, feed crops, milk, beef, eggs, and more. Due to Arizona’s year-round growing season, low corporate tax structure and available workforce, the industry is, and likely will be, a vital component of the state’s economy for many years to come.

Agriculture’s impact to land, water, and wildlife resources, however, cannot be overlooked. According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR), agriculture operations consume approximately 72% of the available water in the state (ADWR 2021). While the irrigated agriculture industry has implemented several conservation-based management practices and employed advanced technology to improve efficiency and reduce water use, the level of consumption poses a direct threat to riparian habitat and puts stress on wildlife. Conversion of natural landscapes to agriculture fields and livestock operations can result in wildlife habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation, while also altering the soil and vegetation composition and displacing native plants and pollinators.

Fortunately, many Arizona farmers and ranchers participate in conservation programs and/or employ sustainable agriculture practices that help reduce the impact to natural resources while enhancing environmental quality. The following are just a few of the innovative and wildlife-friendly methods Arizona’s agricultural producers are using:

  • Installation of wildlife-friendly fencing

  • Livestock water troughs built with wildlife escape ramps

  • Restoration and enhancement of rangelands to encourage native grasses and vegetation

  • Establishing partnerships with beekeepers to support pollinator habitat

  • Improving water use efficiency through canal lining, crop rotation and cover crops, no-till practices, efficient irrigation systems using weather sensing and crop analysis technology, tailwater reuse, and bed and furrow shaping

Annual and Perennial Crops

Arizona’s farmers raise many specialty crops and, in fact, the state is the nation’s second leading producer of cantaloupes, honeydews, pistachios, and dates, and the third largest producer of fresh market vegetables (AZDA 2018). The nut and date crop industry is growing rapidly. With approximately 22,000 acres of pecans in production annually, the state is becoming known for its productive nut farms.

In addition to the direct habitat loss and modification mentioned above, these industries also threaten wildlife through indirect effects. Where broadcast pesticides are used, the potential for contamination of surrounding lands and water bodies exists. Pesticide particles can easily move off-site via wind currents, and some can move through and persist in waterways. These particles and residues can harm sensitive plants and animals and can be hazardous to human health. Some of the pesticides being used also have the potential to negatively-impact the invertebrate community, especially pollinators. Efforts are generally made to reduce the impact by timing the applications so that it doesn't coincide with flowering.

Aquatic systems and species of fish and amphibians are particularly vulnerable to contamination by runoff from irrigated fields. Fertilizer runoff increases nutrients in water bodies, leading to algal blooms which can lower dissolved oxygen levels, causing stress, disease, and death of sensitive aquatic species. Pesticides can build up in food sources, cause abnormalities in aquatic species and poison fish and wildlife. Sediment transport from irrigated fields can reduce water clarity and visibility, negatively affect foraging efficiency of fish and piscivorous birds, and result in increased sedimentation of aquatic habitats.

To reduce the risk of contamination, farmers can utilize Integrated Pest Management (IPM) principles and invest in irrigation system improvements to increase water use efficiency. The EPA has several resources on the effects of pesticide drift to humans and the environment, as well as best management practices for reducing drift and runoff.

Livestock Farming and Ranching

Cattle ranching and dairy production likely have an even larger effect on wildlife and natural habitats. Ranching has been a part of Arizona’s heritage for more than 300 years and still plays a significant role in the rural economy. Arizona dairy farms produce about 4.2 billion pounds of milk annually, much of which is processed and sold locally. Arizona dairies, ranches, and associated cooperatives and organizations employ thousands of Arizonans and feed even more.

The ecological impact of these operations, including the infrastructure, ground disturbance, and agricultural runoff, affect local wildlife, vegetation, and water quality. Fencing, corrals, and associated buildings can create barriers to species movements. Depending on the intensity and duration of grazing and the aridity of the area being grazed, soil erosion and alteration to native vegetation can permanently alter and degrade habitats, especially around riparian areas. In many parts of the state, riparian systems and streams have been altered by years of over-grazing, with resulting long-term changes to streambank characteristics and changes to the plant community structure. In recognition of this impact to the environment, many livestock operations have adopted specific management practices that have the potential to significantly reduce negative impacts to the natural communities with which they share the land.  Managing cattle numbers at appropriate levels that the landscape can support, implementing rotational grazing, and restricting cattle use near the most sensitive habitat such as riparian habitats are key actions that ranchers can implement.

Ranchers in Arizona represent some of the greatest advocates for wildlife and conservation and contribute immensely to on-the-ground habitat enhancement work across the state. Continued collaborations with ranchers are critical to maintaining the health of our wildlife populations and their habitats. The key conservation programs that facilitate this invaluable conservation partnership are highlighted in the Landowner Incentive Programs section of Chapter 4: A Comprehensive Conservation Approach.