Arizona Wildlife Conservation Strategy

Great Basin Desertscrub

The Great Basin Desert is the most northern and highest elevation of Arizona’s deserts. This cold desert habitat occurs in northern Arizona’s Colorado Plateau region. This shrub-dominated community occurs across the Arizona Strip and the Painted Desert of the Little Colorado River basin, generally at elevations between 4,000 to 7,000 feet above sea level (Brown 1982). The climate is arid, the growing season is short and freezing temperatures are common in all but the warmest summer months. Winters are dry, windy and cold. Plant diversity is relatively low with dominant shrub species including sagebrush, shadscale, blackbrush, Mormon tea, rabbitbrush, and winterfat. Cacti and succulents are limited to just a few low-stature species. Grasses include black grama, mutton grass, Indian rice and needle and thread. Historically, this was not a fire-adapted ecosystem, however with the invasion of annual grasses like cheatgrass, fire intervals have become more frequent to the detriment of native shrubs and herbaceous species such as blackbrush and winterfat (Turner 1994). Much of the area covered by Great Basin desertscrub has remained relatively unchanged. However, habitat degradation increased throughout the 20th Century, mostly due to intense grazing practices (Tuhy et al. 2002).

Significant Habitat Features

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

  • Springs and spring-fed wetlands are generally scarce in this arid habitat but where they occur they provide essential habitat for native amphibians (e.g. northern leopard frog), a wide array of invertebrates, foraging grounds for bats and important stopover and sometimes breeding habitat for birds. They are also important watering sources for native ungulates (e.g. bighorn sheep, pronghorn, mule deer).

  • Cryptobiotic soil crusts are created by living organisms (e.g., algae, cyanobacteria, and fungi). The bacteria release a gelatinous material that binds soil particles together in a dense matrix. The result is a hardened surface layer made up of both living organisms and inorganic soil matter. This crust allows arid soils to resist erosion by wind and water. Many unusual and unique organisms occur in association with crusts, including rare and undescribed algal species and lichens. It is becoming increasingly clear that the older and better developed crusts support important levels of cryptogamic plant biodiversity. Cryptobiotic soil crusts are quite fragile, especially during the drier seasons. Footprints from hikers and livestock will crush cryptobiotic crusts and vehicle tires have the potential to damage large areas (NPS 2015). Some SGCN that occur in this habitat include Gunnison’s prairie dog and chisel-toother kangaroo rat.

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:


Northern Leopard Frog


Brewer's Sparrow, Common Nighthawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, Sage Thrasher, Sagebrush Sparrow


Niobrara Ambersnail


Big Free-tailed Bat, Black-footed Ferret, Black-tailed Jackrabbit, Chisel-toothed Kangaroo Rat, Greater Western Mastiff Bat, Gunnison's Prairie Dog, Houserock Valley Chisel-toothed Kangaroo Rat, Mexican Free-tailed Bat, Spotted Bat

Sensitive Plant Species

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

Marble Canyon Milk-vetch, Duane's Milkvetch, Brady Pincushion Cactus, Fickeisen Plains Cactus, Siler Fishhook Cactus, Mexican Skullcap

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.


Great Basin Spadefoot


Common Poorwill, Common Raven, Lark Sparrow, Northern Mockingbird, Rock Wren


American Bison, American Pronghorn, Desert Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer


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
Historical and current grazing practices have led to reduced forage for herbivores and granivores, reduced cover for many species including pronghorn, increased erosion and water infiltration, and facilitated invasive annual grasses such as cheatgrass.

6. Energy Production and Mining

6.3: Renewable energy
This habitat type hosts many mining claims as well as proposed solar and wind farms. Renewable energy operations can lead to increased road densities, habitat loss, and draw down of water tables. Infrastructure can cause direct mortality to wildlife such as bats, songbirds, and raptors from collisions with turbines and solar mirrors.

8. Invasive and Other Problematic Species

8.1: Invasive non-native species
Annual grasses such as cheatgrass have increased the fire interval in this ecosystem, leading to detrimental effects on native shrubs such as blackbrush and winterfat as well as on herbaceous species.

9. Natural System Modifications

9.1: Fire and fire suppression
Great Basin desertscrub is not a fire-adapted ecosystem. However, invasive annual grasses such as cheatgrass have increased the fire frequency and intensity to the detriment of native shrubs and herbaceous species.

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 to improve the quality of altered systems and increase connectivity by removing barriers (e.g., fence modifications and removals). (Threats 1.3, 6.3, 8.1, 9.1)
  • Control the spread of invasive species using manual, mechanical, and chemical methods, as needed. (Threats 1.3, 6.3, 8.1, 9.1)
  • Seek opportunities to work with land management agencies and grazing permittees on habitat enhancements that benefit both livestock and wildlife. Encourage land management agencies to reduce stocking levels during drought conditions, to implement adequate range monitoring and respond to thresholds by adjusting stocking levels. (Threats 1.3, 8.1, 9.1)

4. Education and Awareness

4.3: Awareness and communication
  • Raise awareness among the public and legislators regarding impacts of renewable energy sources on wildlife — particularly on migratory raptors, songbirds, and bats — but also other wildlife as well as on water resources (e.g., solar farms). (Threat 6.3)
  • 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
5.4: Compliance and enforcement
  • Provide input into the implementation of laws, monitoring programs, and compliance with laws and policies. (Threats 1.3, 6.3, 7.1)

6. Livelihood, Economic and Other Incentives

6.1: Linked enterprises and livelihood alternatives (i.e. ecotourism)
6.2: Substitution with environmentally-friendly goods and services
  • Work with land management agencies and grazing permittees on habitat enhancements that benefit both livestock and wildlife. (Threats 1.3, 3.1, 8.1)
  • Collaborate with renewable energy interests to avoid migration corridors and reduce hazards to wildlife from wind turbines. (Threat 6.3)
  • 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, 4.1)

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).

  • Establish new wild and/or captive populations of climate vulnerable SGCN.

  • Implement long-term monitoring protocols for vulnerable species and habitats to inform adaptive management.

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) 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 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: