Arizona Wildlife Conservation Strategy

Great Basin Conifer Woodlands

Great Basin conifer woodlands are found throughout northern Arizona, mostly north of the Mogollon Rim at elevations between 3,400 and 8,800 feet. These habitats are dominated by up to 40% juniper and pinyon pine in northern areas due to winter snowfall. Pinyon pine, and Utah, Rocky Mountain and one-seed juniper are the dominant canopy species. Gambel oak can be intermixed with mountain mahogany (Bennet et al. 2013). Depending on the area, other habitat types such as grassland, desertscrub, and chaparral woodland may form beneath the canopy of mature conifer woodlands. Several avian species are endemic to this habitat type in Arizona, including pinyon jay, juniper titmouse, and gray vireo.

Over the past century, Great Basin conifer woodlands have been significantly affected by human activities, including livestock grazing, mechanical and chemical treatments, and perhaps most notably, fire suppression, which results in changes to natural fire regimes (Monsen and Stevens 1999; Stevens and Monson 2004) and increased tree cover. Today, only about 11% of the Great Basin conifer woodlands have fire regimes which are severely altered from their historical range, but another 70% are moderately altered, creating a risk of losing key ecosystem components (Schmidt et al. 2002). Other factors have influenced diversity and function, including introduced plant species, historic overgrazing, and extended drought. Introduced forbs and grasses, such as cheatgrass, can increase wildfire risk and lead to reductions in plant composition and diversity. The combination of reduced plant diversity, fire suppression, and livestock grazing can result in increased densities of pinyon pine and juniper (Wright et al. 1979). These denser woodlands, combined with climate change, are expected to experience more frequent and extensive crown fires, potentially resulting in a decline of woodland tree species and entire communities eventually being replaced by shrublands or grasslands (Gruell 1999). Recent wildfires have decreased the reliability of water at some springs which can impact local wildlife. Monitoring of habitat and wildlife will continue to determine overall effects of large-scale fires (Ketcham and Koprowski 2013). 

Invasive insect species are also contributing to significant changes in Great Basin conifer woodlands. Prolonged drought throughout the region is causing additional stress to trees. Pinyon pines have recently experienced widespread mortality due to drought and insects, affecting 1.2 million acres (9% of total distribution in Arizona) during 2002-2004 (Breshears et al. 2005; USFS 2005). Epidemics of pinyon ips beetle, a type of bark beetle, have been occurring during drought periods when the mature trees are weak, resulting in stands of dead trees. The partial overstory of dead material changes the characteristics of the stands, altering the probability of fire starts and how it will then be carried (Clifford et al 2008).

Significant Habitat Features

The following describes habitat features or microhabitats that are unique to this habitat and are of particular importance to certain species:

  • Wet meadows can occur in low lying areas with poorly drained soils, including shallow, ephemeral lakes. For most of the year wet meadows are without standing water, though the high water table allows the soil to remain wet. A variety of water-loving grasses, sedges, rushes, and wetland wildflowers proliferate in the highly fertile soil of wet meadows. Amphibians such as Great Basin spadefoot will breed in these temporary wetlands, and the wetland wildflowers provide a critical source of nectar for many pollinator species.

  • Springs are vital water sources in an arid environment, and often support endemic species, such as Verde Rim springsnail and an undescribed Pyrgulopsis springsnail. Amphibians that rely on these water sources include Chiricahua leopard frog, northern leopard frog, lowland leopard frog, and Arizona toad. Springs can also act as foraging grounds for bats and important stopover and sometimes breeding habitat for birds. There are approximately 1,240 springs in this habitat type statewide.

  • Rock outcrops are unique habitats that lend topographic diversity to habitats that can be fairly dense and homogenous, such as chaparral. These habitats may only occupy a small percentage of the land base, but they are disproportionately important as wildlife habitat.

  • Hanging gardens are associated with seeps and springs and usually emerge from perched, unconfined aquifers in aeolian sandstone formations. In Arizona, hanging gardens support unique ecosystems with wetland, riparian and desert plants, including various amphibian species that rely on aquatic systems. In this habitat type, hanging gardens can be found at Little Green Valley Fen, Horseshoe, and Mesquite washes.

Strategy Species

The following list represents SGCN in this habitat type that AZGFD actively manages or are watching closely due to some level of concern:


Arizona Toad, Chiricahua Leopard Frog, Lowland Leopard Frog, Northern Leopard Frog


Bald Eagle, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Golden Eagle, Gray Flycatcher, Juniper Titmouse, Northern Goshawk, Pinyon Jay, Scott's Oriole


Tule Mesa Springsnail, Verde Rim Springsnail


Big Free-tailed Bat, Black-footed Ferret, Greater Western Mastiff Bat, Gunnison's Prairie Dog, Spotted Bat


Arizona Black Rattlesnake, Black-necked Gartersnake, Narrow-headed Gartersnake, Mexican Gartersnake, Sonora Mud Turtle, Sonoran Whipsnake

Sensitive Plant Species

The following list represents plant species that are known to occur in this habitat type:

Arizona bugbane, Tonto Basin agave, Phillips agave, Page Springs agave, Goodding onion, Arizona pricklypoppy, Welsh's milkweed, sentry milk-vetch, Cliff milk-vetch, freckled milk-vetch, Duane's milkvetch, Navajo sedge, clustered leather flower, Jones cycladenia, Fish Creek fleabane, broadleaf lupine, Lemmon's lupine, Holmgren's stickleaf, September 11 stickleaf, seashore cactus, Brady pincushion cactus, Paradine (Kaibab) plains cactus, Fickeisen plains cactus, Siler pincushion cactus, Poverty Mountain breadroot, Verde breadroot, Lyngholm's brakefern, Cronquist's phacelia, Furniss' phacelia, Higgins' phacelia, Hughes' phacelia, Siler fishhook cactus, Mexican skullcap, Grand Canyon catchfly, Blackrock ground daisy

Additional Influential Species

The following are other wildlife species, native and non-native, that can have particular influence in this habitat type. Influential species can affect SGCN and their habitats directly and indirectly, for example altering predator/prey interactions, overgrazing, outcompeting natives, creating microhabitats, and others.


Gray Vireo, Merriam's Turkey, Spotted Towhee


American Pronghorn, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, American Black Bear, Collared Peccary or Javelina, Mountain Lion, Mule Deer, Pinon Mouse, Rocky Mountain Elk, Whitetail Deer


Rusby’s milkwort, Tusayan Flameflower, Varied Fishhook Cactus


The following describes the primary threats facing this habitat type, adapted from Salafsky et al. (2008). First-level threats (i.e. Agriculture, Climate Change) represent broad categories while second-level threats reflect more specific stressors to the system. For detailed information on threats to this habitat type and conservation actions being taken, see Chapter 8: Threats and Conservation Actions.

1. Agriculture

1.3: Livestock farming and ranching
Agricultural practices (primarily livestock grazing) can adversely affect great basin conifer habitats through loss of plant cover, erosion, and conversion to non-native species.

2. Biological Resource Use

2.3: Logging and wood harvesting
Logging and wood harvesting can alter the seral stage of conifer habitats. Mechanical removal of trees often results in disturbance to soils and ground vegetation and the loss of snags and nesting habitat, resulting in the direct mortality or displacement of species.

3. Climate Change and Severe Weather

3.1: Habitat shifting and alteration
3.3: Temperature extremes
3.4: Storms and flooding
Climate change is leading to warmer ambient temperatures which may exceed species temperature tolerances, causing local extirpations, or changing the distribution of less heat-tolerant species towards cooler climates. Climate change also results in altered precipitation patterns which alter hydrological regimes and affect species distribution. In addition, invasive species have an advantage over native species and have started monocultures in many areas due to extended drought and climate change.

4. Residential and Commercial Development

4.1: Housing and urban areas
4.3: Tourism and recreation areas
With the human population increasing in Arizona, the expansion of development on the landscape is having direct and indirect effects on wildlife. Direct effects are on habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation, while indirect effects are pollution from light and noise. In addition, open space planning does not guarantee the permeability and connectivity of wildlife as those are considerations at the design level.

6. Energy Production and Mining

6.2: Mining and quarrying
6.3: Renewable energy
Mining operations can cause habitat loss/fragmentation, draw down of groundwater and general disturbance. Renewable energy operations can cause direct mortality from collisions with wind turbines, impacts with solar mirrors or injuries from solar flux.

7. Human Intrusions and Disturbance

7.1: Recreational activities
Recreational activities, such as illegal OHV use, can damage habitats by altering or damaging vegetation. In upland areas, poorly-managed OHV use can cause erosion. These types of alterations can negatively affect species abundance and distributions.

8. Invasive and Other Problematic Species

8.1: Invasive non-native species
8.2: Problematic native species
Invasive and problematic species compete with native fauna, over-utilize native species and cause habitat damage. Overgrazing and invasive insects have also impacted the habitat, resulting in increased woody debris, decrease in diversity of species, and increasing the potential for large and severe fires.

9. Natural System Modifications

9.1: Fire and fire suppression
Fire suppression in the 20th Century created forests that are susceptible to more frequent and more intense wildfires which can cause direct mortality to individuals and result in habitat loss. Drought conditions since the 1990s initiated bark beetle outbreaks in 2003 and has resulted in increased snags and accumulations of coarse woody debris which increase fuel loads. Recent wildfires have increased the populations of native non-invasive vegetation (e.g. oak and manzanita) resulting in encroachments into pinyon and juniper habitat types. Herbaceous biomass has also decreased.

10. Pollution

10.1: Household sewage and urban waste water
10.4: Garbage and solid waste
Pollution can lead to habitat degradation, behavior modification from noise, direct mortality/reduced fecundity, and loss of food and water. Sources of pollution include leaking septic and fuel tanks, untreated sewage, oil or sediment on roads, lawn and agricultural fertilizers and herbicides, illegal dump sites, mine tailings, road-side litter, construction-site debris, and solid garbage and waste.

11. Transportation and Service Corridors

11.1: Roads and railroads
11.2: Utility and service lines
Transportation corridors through montane forests can be a direct threat to species. Vehicular traffic can be a significant cause of mortality while noise and visual disturbance can alter behavior. Road construction and maintenance may result in the direct loss of habitat and disrupt migration corridors.

Conservation Actions

The following describes specific conservation actions that can be taken to reduce or eliminate threats to this habitat type, adapted from Salafsky et al. (2008). Level 1 conservation actions (i.e. Land and Water Protection) represent broad categories of potential actions, while the Level 2 conservation actions (i.e. Resource and habitat protection) are more specific.

2. Land and Water Management

2.1: Site/area management
2.2: Invasive/problematic species control
2.3: Habitat and natural process restoration
  • Implement projects focused on improving the quality of altered systems creating suitable habitat and/or habitat features for wildlife and pollinator species. Manage for thinning, prescribed burns to create healthy habitats that are less prone to catastrophic wildfires and resilient to drought and insect infestations. (Threats 1.3, 2.3, 3.1, 8.1, 9.1)
  • Control the spread of invasive and problematic species by implementing invasive species management plans that may include herbicide, mechanical removal, and other methods. (Threats 8.1, 8.2)
  • Manage unauthorized livestock and feral horses, including removal, and managed at appropriate levels to minimize ecological impacts where allowed. (Threat 8.1)
  • Perform maintenance as needed to all the AZGFD water catchments used by wildlife to maintain functionality. Meet with federal land ownership agencies staff annually to identify and plan future water projects. (Threats 3.1, 3.2, 3.3)
  • Collaborate with local land managing agencies to ensure that recreational use is not negatively impacting habitats. Continue to provide signs to private property landowners to discourage trespassing. Ensure that all illegal roads are properly posted to avoid habitat degradation. (Threats 4.3, 7.1, 10.1)
  • To improve habitat connectivity for large ungulates, identify specific areas of chaparral and juniper encroachment and implement habitat improvement projects such as prescribed burns and/or juniper thinning. (Threats 4.1, 8.1, 8.2, 11.1, 11.2)

4. Education and Awareness

4.3: Awareness and communication
  • Increase awareness of the effects of specific threats (e.g. climate change, invasive species, illegal collection of reptiles and amphibians) on wildlife and habitats with an emphasis on how the threats can be reduced. (Threats 3.1, 3.3, 5, 8.1)
  • Inform local sportsman groups of the need to reduce chaparral and juniper encroachment that negatively impact wildlife movements. (Threat 8.2)
  • Expand wildlife viewing programs to improve associated infrastructure (signs, platforms, etc.) and to reach larger and more diverse audiences. (Threats 4.3, 7.1)

5. Law and Policy

5.1: Legislation
5.2: Policies and regulations
  • Provide input into formal government sector legislation or policies, influencing, or providing input into policies and regulations affecting the implementation of laws at all levels, monitoring and enforcing compliance with laws, policies and regulations, and standards and codes at all levels. (Threats 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 4.3, 6.3, 7.1, 8.1, 9.1)

6. Livelihood, Economic and Other Incentives

6.1: Linked enterprises and livelihood alternatives (i.e. ecotourism)
  • Actively seek opportunities to partner with Arizona agricultural producers and private landowners on a variety of habitat enhancements that benefit both livestock and wildlife. (Threats 1.1, 1.3, 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 8.1, 9.1)
  • Share information and discuss the benefits of participating in species recovery programs such as Safe Harbor Agreements, Habitat Conservation Plans, Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances, and Candidate Conservation Agreements with interested landowners. (Threats 1.3, 3.1)

Conservation in the Context of Climate Change

The following describes some of the conservation strategies that may mitigate the effects of a changing climate for this habitat type. Strategies have been adapted from guidelines by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA 2009).

  • Conserve a variety of habitats that support healthy populations of wildlife as the climate changes.

  • Restore and/or improve diverse habitats to support a broad range of species assemblages that account for range shifts.

  • Monitor and mitigate for introduced/invasive species.

  • Identify and improve the connectivity of natural landscapes to better link wildlife populations and allow for range shifts.

Other Conservation Actions

The following describe other routine or on-going conservation actions AZGFD regularly performs in this habitat type:

  • Conduct surveys and monitor populations of SGCN as specified in work plans and job statements.
  • Survey the influential species (when possible) within the Great Basin conifer habitat to minimize negative impacts to habitat and associated species.
  • Fund or work with partners to conduct conservation-related research.
  • Manage recreational activities and OHV use of conifer habitats to minimize negative impacts to habitat and associated species.
  • Collect specimens or samples for taxonomic analysis, genetics, research, and/or disease testing.

Conservation Opportunity Areas (COAs)

The following represents identified COAs where conservation efforts would benefit wildlife and their habitats.

Potential Partnerships

The following is a list of the organizations and agencies that AZGFD regularly partners with on conservation efforts in this habitat type:

Important Conservation Resources

The following are relevant conservation agreements, plans, and other documents or particular interest regarding wildlife in this habitat type: