Arizona creates website to track wildlife - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Arizona creates website to track wildlife

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Posted: Friday, December 2, 2011 7:00 am | Updated: 3:11 pm, Fri Dec 2, 2011.

When Sandy Cate would travel north along Route 93 past Hoover Dam into Dolan Springs and the White Hills areas in the mid 1970s and early 1980s, she would notice a Golden Eagle perched atop about every fourth power pole.

But today, as she travels those routes a handful of times a year as a member of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, she said she sees maybe one every three or four months.

"It's sad to see that change over the years," said Cate, office coordinator of the department's Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center. "I've also seen less in the way of deer in that time. The bighorn mountain sheep seem to be doing OK."

"Development has been the No. 1 stressor on animals and species in the state that cause their existence to be threatened," Cate added. "Then, there's always the natural causes such as drought and other animals that prey on them."

On Wednesday, Arizona Game and Fish officials, along with representatives from the Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, launched HabiMap Arizona (www.HabiMap.org), a web-based information system to help the state in protection and conservation efforts. It is part of the department's ongoing State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) to work with developers and other conservationists in keeping watch on the more than 800 species of wildlife in the state.

With more than 300 layers of wildlife data and interactive maps, HabiMap is a website that allows users - including biologists, land planners and students - to review the distribution of the state's wildlife and identify their habitats and possible stressors to their existence. HabiMap Arizona provides a framework for helping to set the state's wildlife conservation priorities and also shows economic data from game and sport fish based on hunter use.

In a statement issued by the department, Game and Fish Director Larry Voyles said, "This is a great example of how technology can be used to assist in transparent wildlife conservation and project planning. We're excited to offer a tool that not only allows the department to better manage wildlife at a state-wide scale, but also can be used to help address the growth needs of our state."

HabiMap has been slightly more than six years in the planning stages.

In recent years measures such as overpasses and underpasses and better wetlands mitigation were created in the state with Highway 260 and Route 93 construction projects to help protect wildlife from habitat loss and fragmentation. More projects like these can be identified using HabiMap's information.

Amazingly, none of Arizona's animals, mammals or amphibians have become extinct in the last few years. But since there's a lull in development, it's important to enact measures to preserve them for future generations, game and fish officials said. This is especially true since Arizona's population, which currently is 6.4 million, is projected to grow to more than 10 million by 2030.

Hunting, fishing and wildlife watching in Arizona provide more than $1.5 billion in economic benefits on federal, tribal and state land each year, and support more than 32,000 jobs, according to Arizona Game and Fish. Tracking the animals is key to that.

Arizona also hopes that neighboring states across the country will use HabiMap as an example to protect its wildlife, said Arizona Game and Fish deputy director Bob Broscheid.

"Wildlife knows no state boundaries," said Broscheid, noting that Arizona shares migratory birds between Mexico and Canada.

"HabiMap is a critical outreach program," Cate said. "In addition to biologists and land planners, this can educate young students of how to help in conservation efforts for generations to come. Just like cell phones and computers, it will become second nature to them. When you're watching a wildlife program on television, you're often seeing how animals from other countries are threatened. When you get to see it up close and personal, it makes a difference."

HabiMap can provide information about where species are concentrated, where animal food sources are located and migration patterns.

It can help keep watch over threatened animals, such as the Sonoran Desert Tortoise. The tortoise, a reptile that can live up to 100 years old, can't move away to find food as quickly as other wildlife when development moves in.

Rob Marshall, a scientist for the Nature Conservancy, said the website is a jump for his group and others.

"It's a real advance in what we had in the past," Marshall said. "Many of the data layers in the new site have been used in the past, but you had to go to different sources to get it. Now, it's all together. This will help us make good decisions involving our wildlife. We need a good economy - and wildlife growth. It shouldn't be one or the other."

The HabiMap website was put together by Matthew Bullock, the department's web analyst, over a period of more than two years with numerous other IT workers in the department.

Bullock said, "We want to keep ahead of the curve. HabiMap is not so much about what's been lost, but about what can be saved."

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