Plains and Great Basin Grasslands
Plains and Great Basin grasslands are found at elevations between 5,000 to 7,000 ft. Perennial, sod-forming grasses dominate this habitat type with blue, black, and sideoats grama being the most abundant. Other important grasses include buffalo-grass, Indian rice grass, Galleta grass, prairie junegrass, plains lovegrass, vine mesquite grass, Texas timothy, and alkali sacaton. Common forbs are primrose, bahia, four-o’clock, gaura, mallow, aster, scurfpea, and coneflower (Brown 1994). Historically, this habitat type consisted of large areas of nearly uninterrupted grass and forb species with low shrub cover, and included most of the grasslands of the Colorado Plateau in northeastern Arizona. This habitat’s distribution is limited in southeastern Arizona.
Plains and Great Basin grasslands in Arizona have changed significantly over the past century. The area occupied by these grasslands are in good condition across about 31% of their distribution. A high amount of the overall area, roughly 60%, has been invaded by shrubs with some potential to be restored or has transitioned into shrubland. The remaining 9% is dominated by shrubs or non-native grasses or suffers from severe erosion (TNC 2021; Schussman and Gori 2004). For example, when in close proximity to pinyon-juniper woodland, these grasslands are subject to encroachment and, in cases where essential ecosystem processes are not restored, conversion has resulted. Grazing pressures from livestock and wildlife can contribute to alterations in the vegetation composition and structure as well, though appropriate management may reduce negative impacts and even stimulate positive ecological responses (Finch 2004; Souther et al. 2019). Human encroachment is also adding pressure to these habitats as these low-lying valley bottoms are attractive for housing development, a rising trend that will only grow with increasing populations in Arizona.
Several SGCN occur in this habitat type that are not found elsewhere in the state or in only one or a few habitat types, such as Sonoran tiger salamander, eastern yellow-bellied racer, Arizona grasshopper sparrow, Gunnison’s prairie dog, and black-footed ferret.
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:
Ciénegas and other small and shallow water bodies provide habitats for the reproduction and recruitment of amphibian and invertebrate species, including Chiracahua leopard frog and Sonoran tiger salamander. These vital habitat are also an important water resource for other species. Ciénegas are particularly important in the grasslands of southeastern Arizona.
Springs exist on the landscape when water pressure in the aquifer pushes water through cracks or tunnels and flows naturally to the surface. These springs create isolated pockets of habitat for a variety of aquatic species, such as the northern leopard frog found in Truxton Spring.
Temperate grasslands are typically found between desert and forest habitat with grasses as the dominant vegetation type. Tree and shrub species can be found interspersed on the landscape. Examples of SGCN that occur in these habitat feautes include American pronghorn and plains leopard frog. Plains and Great Basin grasslands are the Aubrey Valley, Seventyfour Plains, north of the Great Basin conifer woodlands habitat in the White Mountains, Antelope Flat, and Cataract Ranch.
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, Sonoran Tiger Salamander
American Peregrine Falcon, Baird's Sparrow, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Ferruginous Hawk, Golden Eagle, Western Grasshopper Sparrow, Horned Lark, Loggerhead Shrike, Long-eared Owl, Mountain Plover, Prairie Falcon, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Sprague's Pipit, Swainson's Hawk, Western Burrowing Owl, Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Big Free-tailed Bat, Black-footed Ferret, Black-tailed Prairie Dog, Greater Western Mastiff Bat, Gunnison's Prairie Dog, Mexican Free-tailed Bat, Mexican Gray Wolf, Ocelot, Spotted Bat
Gila Monster, Mexican Gartersnake, Ornate Box Turtle, Slevin's Bunchgrass Lizard, Sonora Mud Turtle
Sensitive Plant Species
The following list represents plant species that are known to occur in this habitat type:Holmgren (paradox) milk-vetch, Diamond Butte milkvetch, Sarah's wild buckwheat, Huachuca water-umbel, Holmgren's stickleaf, September 11 stickleaf, beardless cinchweed, Paradine (Kaibab) plains cactus, Fickeisen plains cactus, Peebles Navajo cactus, Siler pincushion cactus, Higgins' Phacelia, Hughes' Phacelia, Huachuca Mountain milkwort, Arizona rose sage, Siler fishhook cactus, Canelo Hills ladies'-tresses
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.
Mexican Spadefoot, Plains Spadefoot
Lark Sparrow, Rock Wren, Western Meadowlark
American Pronghorn, Kit Fox, Mule Deer, Rocky Mountain Elk
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.
2. Biological Resource Use
3. Climate Change and Severe Weather
4. Residential and Commercial Development
5. Disease, Pathogens, and Parasites
7. Human Intrusions and Disturbance
8. Invasive and Other Problematic Species
9. Natural System Modifications
11. Transportation and Service Corridors
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.
1. Land and Water Protection
- Identify wildlife corridors essential to the movement of species between high-quality habitat blocks. Create wildlife corridors that are identified via acquisition and/or conservation easements. Identify new wildlife corridors essential to movements between high quality habitat blocks. (Threats 1.3, 4.1, 11.1)
2. Land and Water Management
- Improve the quality of altered ecosystems by restoring and maintaining native plant species. This can be done by utilizing fire, improving diversity, eradication of invasive species, coordinating with partners to protect and maintain native grassland characteristics and wildlife habitat requirements, research, and maintenance once work is performed. (Threats 1.3, 3.1, 8.1, 9.1)
- Increase habitat connectivity by removing barriers and impediments to species movement. (Threats 1.3, 4.1)
- Control the spread of invasive and problematic species by implementing biological, mechanical, and chemical methods. (Threat 8.1)
3. Species Management
- Survey and monitor species and habitats to determine status and conditions so that resources can be appropriately allocated. Evaluate the effectiveness of management actions, adapting the approach as necessary. Develop predator control strategies to enhance fawn recruitment. (Threat 8.2)
- Ensure viable populations of at-risk species (prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets) through captive breeding, artificial propagation and/or gene banking. (Threat 5)
- Conduct research with new methods to help lower the spread of plague on the landscape. Reduce the prevalence of external parasites carrying plague on the landscape to bolster prairie dog and ferret populations. (Threat 5)
4. Education and Awareness
- Engage communities to incorporate natural resource values and open spaces into long-term planning; increase public awareness of AZGFD’s nongame conservation efforts to gain the support of non-traditional constituencies. (Threat 4.1)
- Collaborate with developers, the Arizona Corporation Commission, and federal state, and local governments to raise awareness of impacts to wildlife and habitat from renewable and non-renewable energy development. (Threats 6.2, 6.3)
- Partner with NGOs and OHV user groups to raise awareness about damages to sensitive habitats resulting from recreational activities. (Threat 7.1)
- Expand wildlife viewing programs to improve associated infrastructure (signs, platforms, etc.) and to reach larger and more diverse audiences. (Threats 4.3, 7.1)
- Mitigate transportation impacts by constructing wildlife crossing structures, avoiding wildlife corridors, and signage, etc., when major roadway/highway construction will be occurring. (Threat 11.1)
5. Law and Policy
- Partner with NGOs and OHV user groups to track OHV use and damage of cross-country travel; improve coordination with partners through multi-agency regional to discuss priorities; conduct statewide law enforcement patrols targeting illegal OHV use as well as targeted saturation patrols in areas identified as critical habitat that are being adversely impacted by recreational activities. (Threat 7.1)
7. External Capacity Building
- Collaborate with partners at different scales (e.g., statewide, regional, national, and international) to develop and implement management plans, conservation agreements, recovery actions, research, management recommendations, and determine specific management efforts to improve and coordinate landscape-scale efforts for long-term conservation of SCGN wildlife. (Threats 3.2, 3.3)
- Improve coordination with partners to identify priorities and how the AWCS can be used to facilitate project planning and implementation. (Threats 1.3, 4.1, 11.1)
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 fish and wildlife as climate changes.
Identify and improve the connectivity of natural landscapes to better link wildlife populations and allow for range shifts.
Maintain existing and identify new wildlife waters for drought mitigation.
Conserve a variety of habitats that support healthy populations of wildlife as the climate changes.
Collect specimens or samples for taxonomic analysis, genetics, research, and/or disease testing.
Conduct research targeting species and habitat types likely to be vulnerable to climate change impacts.
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:
- Monitor pronghorn movements and wildlife connectivity in Big Chino Valley.
- Conduct surveys and monitor populations of SGCN as specified in work plans and job statements. Survey other influential species within the habitat to minimize negative impacts to habitat and species.
- Fund or work with partners to conduct conservation-related species research.
- Manage recreational activities and OHV use of grassland habitat 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.
- Anderson Mesa
- Aubrey Valley
- Grasslands Habitat Initiative
- Grasslands Wildlife Area
- Lower Little Colorado River
- Middle Little Colorado River
- Petrified Forest - Puerco River
- Raymond Wildlife Area
- Rim 2 River
- San Rafael Grasslands
- Silver Creek to Little Colorado River
- Upper Verde River
The following is a list of the organizations and agencies that AZGFD regularly partners with on conservation efforts in this habitat type:
- USFWS Arizona Ecological Services
- US Forest Service
- Bureau of Land Management
- National Parks Service
- Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument
- Lake Mead National Recreation Area
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Petrified Forest National Park
- Navajo Nation
- Hopi Tribe
- Hualapai Tribe
- Havasupai Tribe
- Big Sandy National Resource Conservation District
- National Wild Turkey Federation
- Quail Forever/Pheasants Forever
- Private Landowners
- Mule Deer Foundation
- Arizona Antelope Foundation
- Northern Arizona University
- US Geological Survey
- Arizona Deer Association
- Arizona Field Ornithologists
- Arizona Mule Deer Organization
- Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch
- Arizona Monarch Collaborative
- Southwest Monarch Study
- Gila Watershed Partnership
Important Conservation Resources
The following are relevant conservation agreements, plans, and other documents or particular interest regarding wildlife in this habitat type:
- An Assessment of the Spatial Extent and Condition of Grasslands in Central and Southern Arizona, Southwestern New Mexico and Northern Mexico
- Western Grassland Initiative Strategic Plan, A Plan for Conserving Grassland Habitat and Wildlife. July 2011
- Arizona Bat Conservation Strategic Plan
- Black-footed Ferret Statewide Management Plan
- Black-footed Ferret Recovery Plan (USFWS 2013)
- Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Multi-State Conservation Plan
- Chiricahua Leopard Frog Recovery Plan
- Sonora Tiger Salamander Recovery Plan
- Gunnison's Prairie Dog - Interagency Management Plan
- Gunnison's Prairie Dog - WAFWA Conservation Assessment
- White-tailed and Gunnison's Prairie Dog Conservation Strategy
- Western Burrowing Owl Management Resources
- Southeastern Arizona Grasslands Pronghorn Initiative, 2010-2019
- Central Arizona Grassland Conservation Strategy
- Arizona Statewide Pronghorn Management Plan 2013
- Sonoran Pronghorn Recovery Plan
- Western Monarch Butterfly Conservation Plan