By Published On: November 25, 2012

Conserving Wetlands for Wildlife, Cattle, and People on the Anderson Mesa (AZ)

Originally published in Spring 2012 IWJV Newsletter

There is a saying in the arid west: “Water is for fightin’ over, whiskey is for drinkin’.”

Here in Arizona, water is precious and any wetland, no matter how small, is a rare commodity that becomes a magnet for wildlife, livestock and people. On the Anderson Mesa in central Arizona, a broad partnership was formed to protect and restore 17 critically important wetlands and their associated upland habitats. To date, this collaborative effort has restored over 130 square miles of grasslands and encouraged a healthy balance of vegetation types surrounding an intact matrix of wetlands.

Local ranchers were full partners in this project; their knowledge and participation were vital to its success. Other major partners included the Coconino National Forest, Arizona Wildlife Federation, and Arizona Game and Fish Department. The Northern Arizona Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Arizona Antelope Foundation, Arizona Elk Society, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and others provided support through financial contributions and the hard work of their volunteers.

Compared to other regions in Arizona, Anderson Mesa (at an altitude of 7,000 feet) receives a great deal of precipitation (about 22 inches per year, much of it accumulating as winter snowpack). Spring and summer snowmelt forms temporary wetlands (biologists call them ‘ephemeral’) that provide critical stopover habitat for birds migrating through the arid landscape. In addition, surrounding uplands sustain many grassland birds, including an important population of Pinyon Jays, a pinyon-juniper obligate species of special interest in the West. The productivity and global importance of the Mesa easily qualified it as an Audubon Important Bird Area (IBA).

The high, grassy Anderson Mesa contains a network of about 170 wetlands (both natural and enhanced) that provide feeding areas for waterfowl and wading birds, hunting areas for raptors, and forage for significant populations of antelope, deer and elk. The Mesa also supports five working ranches and provides abundant recreational opportunities.

As local wildlife and livestock travel through uplands to reach these prized but rare watering holes, degradation of both grasslands and water quality can occur. To address the problem, 17 ephemeral wetlands were chosen for their persistence and distribution on the Mesa to receive special fencing. By limiting wildlife and livestock access, water clarity and quality was improved and adjacent upland vegetation was restored and enhanced. To accommodate the needs of livestock, cattle access lanes were created where the wetland was the only water available. Fences were constructed using 1/8 inch braided steel cable in place of the top wire in order to reduce damage by elk.

Besides fencing, this major habitat restoration effort is focusing on grassland restoration by removing trees and other woody plants. Clearing these recent invaders while being careful to maintain habitat for Pinyon Jays complements the protection of wetlands and adjacent uplands and benefits many of the same wildlife.

Outcomes of this restoration project include:

  • Enhanced wetlands for waterfowl and shorebirds
  • Large-scale grassland restoration
  • Maintenance of forested habitat for Pinyon Jays

Thanks to the broad partnership of individuals and organizations in Arizona and the IWJV, conservation of the Mesa is rapidly moving forward while the value of the landscape for wildlife, livestock and people is being enhanced.

Authors: Rick Miller is a retired Planner and Mike Rabe is a Migratory Game Bird Biologist with the Arizona Game & Fish Department.