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Partnering for Watchable Wildlife

One of the great advantages of living in Northern Arizona is the chance to see all sorts of wildlife. Now, knowing where you’ll have the best chance to do that in the Flagstaff area should soon be easier. Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) is developing a new Watchable Wildlife program for the Flagstaff area. Although still in the planning stages, Jessica Gist at AZGFD’s Flagstaff Office is organizing a group of local government agencies and nonprofits working collaboratively to establish a network of sites in and around town. “It’s an idea that’s been around for a while,” said Gist, “but we want to coordinate previously separate efforts.” The new Flagstaff initiative will be set up in partnership with the city, county, federal and nonprofit agencies, but as the scheme develops, they’ll be looking for involvement from local businesses, too. Core partners include Coconino County, the City of Flagstaff, the United States Forest Service (USFS), and the Arizona Wildlife Federation. They’ve been meeting monthly since July to draw up plans for the site network.

To be known as the Arizona Watchable Wildlife Experience, the AZGFD program strives to manage and provide for the recreational use of wildlife. Partly funded by lottery ticket sales via the Heritage Fund, the overall aim is to facilitate positive wildlife viewing experiences, increase public awareness of wildlife, boost support for native species and enhance wildlife viewing-related recreational and educational opportunities. It’s part of a statewide effort to develop a network of natural areas and trail systems, with schemes are already operating in the White Mountains and around Lake Powell. Plans for the Flagstaff scheme are to incorporate existing wildlife viewing sites into a local network, with information on individual sites provided via an interactive web site, a map brochure and smartphone apps.

Around 30 sites will be included in the scheme, all located within a 25-mile radius of Flagstaff and selected to include a diversity of habitat types. Examples of sites to be included in the scheme include the wildlife viewing area on Hwy 180 at Kendrick Park, where there’s already a parking area, restroom, trails and some signage about wildlife. At Picture Canyon just east of town, where a lot of cooperative restoration work has been going on recently along the riparian corridor, the Watchable Wildlife team hopes to install a viewing blind next to the pond, with a scope to help get close-up sightings of birds. Logan’s Crossing on the Townsend-Winona road is another target site; although it is currently little more than a roadside pullover, USFS along with Northern Arizona Audubon Society members have been putting in work to get an interpretive trail with signage built. That site attracts a variety of migratory bird species and elk.

But quite a few of the sites will be in urban locations –   Frances Short Pond near Thorpe Park, areas along the Rio de Flag, and the Flagstaff Urban Train System. Shelly Shepherd, AZGFD’s regional Information and Education Program Manager is keen to stress that they want to appeal to locals as well as visitors – and to a diversity of interest groups, including photographers, birders, hikers and bikers – but especially to families and school kids. Shepherd says that making access possible for lower income groups is one priority; hence, the inclusion of urban sites. Gist and Shepherd even hope to provide opportunities for the artists’ community as the scheme develops, with open days for art-related activities at some of the sites.

If you’re thinking this kind of thing isn’t really a business activity, a look at the statistics might make you think again. Activities like bird watching are a growth industry – nationwide this pastime increased by 231 percent between 1982 and 2001. One in every five Arizona residents now reportedly participates in some form of wildlife watching activity. In a survey of USFS-managed lands published in 2007, it was estimated that 646,758 wildlife watchers a year visit Arizona National Forests – the highest visitation figures for a state in the United States. And that wildlife recreation represents big business – statewide purchases of equipment and trip-related expenses generated $1.34 billion per year for hunting and fishing, with $1.5 billion per year thought to have been spent on wildlife viewing-related trips. It’s been estimated that these industries combined support over 30,000 jobs in Arizona, with Coconino County alone generating over $22 million per year from its wildlife recreation industry.

Tom Mackin, president of the Arizona Wildlife Federation and a 25 year Flagstaff resident, says that while the area is blessed with many opportunities to get out and enjoy nature, there’s still a lack of coordinated information on what there is to see and where to see it. He hopes that the Arizona Watchable Wildlife Experience will inspire people, and particularly children, to reconnect with nature and the outdoors, giving them a renewed enthusiasm to see wildlife in a natural setting rather than a zoo. Instead of standardizing signage and other information at the sites, he says the intention is to make enhancements tailored to each location’s specific features.

Mackin adds that up until now, Northern Arizona has lagged behind the southern part of the state in promoting the educational and economic opportunities provided by the region’s natural assets, particular to groups such as birdwatchers. Mackin sees the new Flagstaff scheme as having the potential the to benefit local businesses greatly – from local lodging, outdoor outfitters and sporting goods stores to gas stations and restaurants – not to mention local nature guiding and jeep tour companies.

In the coming months, the Watchable Wildlife core partners will be inviting participation from other stakeholders and looking for sponsors for site stewardship from among the local business community. They are planning an open house in February next year, where they’ll be inviting interested parties and local business to get involved. Meanwhile, if you’d like more information, contact Jessica Gist ( HYPERLINK “mailto:jgist@azgfd.gov” jgist@azgfd.gov) or Shelly Shepherd ( HYPERLINK “mailto:sshepherd@azgfd.gov” sshepherd@azgfd.gov). FBN

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