6/6/2014 8:19:00 AM Local grasslands, pronghorn at risk: Officials ask public for help
Pronghorn graze above Stoneridge Drive and Highway 69 in Prescott Valley in 2007. The area where the pronghorn are standing is now covered in commercial development. Wildlife officials say the Glassford Hill herd is now surrounded by development and likely to die off.
Photo courtesy Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier
PRESCOTT, Arizona - State and federal agencies are trying to save and improve the prime grasslands of Yavapai County, and now they are reaching out to more stakeholders for help.
Urban sprawl, paved roads, fences and lack of wildfire all are contributing factors to the loss of grasslands in this region, which is home to some of the best in the state.
Agencies have spent the last several years coming up with the Central Arizona Grassland Conservation Strategy to improve the remaining 750,000 acres of local grasslands and possibly even expand them.
Now the agencies are seeking help from conservation groups, ranchers, hunting organizations, other government agencies and the general public.
Representatives from all these groups attended presentations and an open house Thursday in Prescott, with about 40 at the first presentation alone.
"We're at a critical stage with this project," said Rod Lucas, Region 6 supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "I think the stakeholders in this room are going to be really key to how we move forward."
All the groups need to pool their resources and focus on the most important projects first, officials agreed. The strategy helps identify those projects.
The lead agencies of Game and Fish, the Prescott and Tonto national forests, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will now organize stakeholder meetings each spring and fall to update everyone about the progress on the grasslands strategy and decide what's next.
The agencies already have spent an estimated $1 million on projects that focused on more than 10,000 acres, although the results affected thousands more.
The projects include fence removal and modification, removal of woody vegetation through mechanical treatment and fire, and even the state's purchase of the Horseshoe Ranch that has 68,000 acres of grazing allotments on the adjacent Agua Fria National Monument. Government partners now hope to create a model grazing plan there that keeps the ecosystem and its wild residents healthy.
Pronghorn antelope are the sentinel species of healthy grasslands, since herds need huge swaths of open space to remain sustainable. Unfortunately, the grasslands tend to be located on private land and easy to develop, so they're often fragmented.
The Willow Lake herd in Prescott is now extinct because it was surrounded by human development, and now the Glassford Hill herd in Prescott Valley is getting surrounded by homes and four-lane highways, too, Game and Fish officials noted in response to questions from the audience.
"It kind of looks like the Willow Lake herd, and they disappeared," local wildlife manager Scott Poppenberger said. "The outlook is not really bright for those individuals."
While experts haven't quantified just how much land a herd needs to survive, they know the more, the better. So they hope to keep movement corridors open between pockets of grasslands. But that's generally impossible when highways are in the way, because it would cost millions to build overpasses for the pronghorn. They generally won't go through tunnels.
Right now the state has only two overpasses and they're for bighorn sheep on Highway 93.
Fence projects can open up corridors, however. The Arizona Antelope Foundation is one volunteer group that works closely with Game and Fish on various such projects. This fall the group is helping the new owner of the Granite Dells Ranch on the north side of Prescott modify and remove fencing.
Pronghorn generally won't jump over fences, so the lower strand needs to be about 18 inches above the ground and smooth. But local governments such as Yavapai County don't require pronghorn-friendly fences.
Right now there are so many tumbleweeds lined up against some of the fences around here that it doesn't matter whether they're pronghorn-friendly or not, said Tom Finley, Region 3 supervisor for Game and Fish.