Development in Arizona continues at a record pace. As of July 2019, approximately 7.28 million people called Arizona home, an increase of 0.9 million people since April 2010 (U.S. Census Bureau 2020). Expanding cities along growing exurban areas, and an increasing network of roadways are just some of the threats to Arizona’s wildlife. The infrastructure that will be required to support our growing population has the potential to greatly exacerbate degradation, fragmentation, and loss of habitat areas that support populations of wildlife. Increasing development can lead to the direct mortality of our wildlife species, and a growing human population will also require an increased demand for limited water resources, presenting even greater challenges for Arizona’s wildlife and habitats. Planning for smart and sustainable growth is critical for the future of Arizona’s wildlife, natural communities, and the quality of life for all who live in or visit Arizona.
In 2019, Arizona ranked third in percentage growth rate in the U.S. with an annual growth of 1.7% (U.S. Census Bureau 2020). Between 2015 and 2019 Arizona welcomed approximately 548,000 new residents and added more than 300,00 new jobs to the already prospering economy (Arizona Commerce Authority 2020). While Phoenix and Tucson continue to grow as the predominant desert urban centers, rural development continues to proceed steadily throughout the state. This rapid growth certainly has its benefits, but it also presents a number of challenges to wildlife conservation, including habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation, introduction of invasive species, and competition for water resources. Urban expansion, rural development, and the associated infrastructure and resource use, not only threatens wildlife and impairs ecological systems, it also creates a disconnect between humans and nature. As our state becomes increasingly urbanized and open spaces are reduced and access restricted, the ability of Arizonans to enjoy outdoor activities becomes more challenging, and their appreciation of wildlife and wildlands may be diminished.
An additional challenge presented by population growth and development is the increased area referred to as the wildlife urban interface (WUI). This zone is where the natural environment meets developed land and it requires extensive management to support natural processes that are typically maintained in natural systems. Managing human-initiated fires and responding to human-wildlife conflicts are just two examples of increased active management practices required to protect humans and property near the WUI.
When habitat is fragmented by urban growth and associated infrastructure, wildlife must find a way around or through the newly-developed area for daily, seasonal, or annual movements to find food, mates, and other resources. This increases the likelihood of interactions with humans, encounters that rarely end well for wildlife. In addition, the indirect effects of urban development, such as light and noise pollution which can alter wildlife behavior, and introduction of exotic plants and predators (e.g., dogs and cats), creates additional risk to native wildlife. Increasing connectivity for wildlife to mitigate the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation in a planned manner can reduce the frequency of negative interactions and allow animals to move to the resources they need. Increased habitat connectivity helps make wildlife more resilient to a number of climate-change induced stressors. See AZGFD’s extensive work on increasing connectivity for wildlife.