By Published On: November 25, 2016

Creativity Sparks Unique Watchable Wildlife Experience in Arizona

Wetlands, lakes and rivers are rare commodities in Arizona, yet the biological diversity of these places is immense. Though few and far between, these areas provide habitat for potentially hundreds of species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates. These wet places are also a magnet for human recreation. Boating, fishing, hunting, wildlife watching and hiking are popular activities provided by waterways. Areas that have a long history of use have, in some cases, resulted in habitat degradation over time. Land managers are working to protect, restore and focus responsible recreation in these places by using creative funding and partnerships.

The need to counteract this degradation while still providing access and opportunities to use these incredible places resulted in developing the Arizona Watchable Wildlife Experience (AWWE). This partnership effort is working to develop networks of sites that highlight the unique physical, biological and cultural values of northern Arizona in conjunction with the conservation of these places, many of which are found near urban settings. With partial funding from the sale of lottery tickets, five key partner organizations – Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD), City of Flagstaff, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Coconino County Parks and Recreation and the U.S. Forest Service – are facilitating wildlife viewing experiences, increasing public awareness of wildlife, boosting support for native species and enhancing wildlife viewing-related recreational and educational opportunities.

“We have some wonderful wildlife viewing opportunities in the Flagstaff area, but there was no concerted effort to protect and promote these places,” said Tom Mackin, Regional Director for the Arizona Wildlife Federation. “Now we have a plethora of resources for people to view and enjoy wildlife as well as a model for sustainable habitat conservation.”

This partnership’s efforts recently culminated in establishing AWWE’s Peaks Tour. This includes a self-guided route that includes 30 recreational sites within 30 miles of Flagstaff, offering visitors opportunities to view wildlife in urban and rural settings, through a system of trails on public and private lands.

Jessica Gist, past employee of AZGFD’s Flagstaff office and Arizona State Conservation Partnership Chair, helped develop the AWWE Wetland and Riparian Site Strategic Action Plan that serves as a guiding document for the partnership to prioritize wetland enhancement projects and promote wetland management. The document characterizes AWWE sites and prioritizes goals and strategies to improve the quality of wetland habitat and the quality of wildlife viewing for visitors.

This Action Plan was funded in part by a Capacity Grant from the IWJV. The use of a Capacity Grant was a creative and innovative use of funding to forward habitat restoration in the southern extent of the Joint Venture for audiences of both rural and urban backgrounds.

“The AWWE program has allowed partner organizations and landowners to pool their limited outreach resources in order to provide a more cohesive and high quality user experience for local and visiting outdoor enthusiasts,” Gist said.

AWWE has its own website with maps of the watchable wildlife sites, audio recordings with background information about some of the places, upcoming events and a directory of different activities possible at these sites. Future plans for the Flagstaff area through the AWWE program include the incorporation of a smartphone app to help bring this wildlife watching experience to different generations. AWWE partners named six additional wetland and riparian sites with high potential for habitat improvements that will also provide great viewing opportunities. Work has already begun to expand this model to other places in Arizona.

“Moving forward, we hope to increasingly educate people that the animals are here for a reason. There is food, water and shelter at these sites and we need to collaborate to keep these places intact,” Mackin said. “The AWWE model shouldn’t be just expanded in our state but it could be applied around country.”

Birders enjoy the wildlife viewing sites along the AWWE Peaks Tour. Photos courtesy of the Arizona Game and Fish Department.