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Green Ribbons through the Desert
Arizona's Riparian Wildlife Areas
Falcon Publishing
A GORP Content Partner
Adapted from
Arizona Wildlife Viewing Guide
by John N. Carr

photograph of white-winged dove To see wildlife in Arizona, go to the riparian areas—the animals do.

In Arizona, riparian habitats comprise only one percent of the land area. Yet these narrow, fertile strips along streams and canyon bottoms harbor the greatest diversity of plants and animals of any habitat type. Riparian habitats are easily disrupted, and as a result only a small percent of these pristine areas remain.

This habitat, dependent upon adequate moisture from streams or springs, is very visible in Arizona since most of the surrounding area is dry upland desert. The classic cottonwood-willow riparian forests are evident along the Verde River in central Arizona and the San Pedro River in the southeast. At higher elevations, sycamores, alder, ash, Arizona walnut, canyon grape, and poison ivy can also be present.

Riparian habitats are not just cottonwood-willow or sycamore communities: they may take the form of a drier mesquite bosque (forest), a wet marsh, or a line of vegetation extending down a canyon bottom due to the cooler, wet conditions not found in the surrounding area. Arroyos—dry streams and channels—support more and larger plants that are common in adjacent areas. These "dry riparian" habitats are created from the extra moisture provided by runoff from seasonal rains, creating a haven for many insects, birds, and mammals. The largest paloverde and ironwood trees of the Sonoran Desert are found near these arroyos.

Many wildlife species are largely or totally dependant on the riparian deciduous forest. The Arizona gray squirrel, Apache fox squirrel, and raccoon are examples. Bats roost in riparian trees and feed upon the great number of insects produced there. Many bird species depend on riparian habitats. At the San Pedro River National Conservation Area, for example, 350 bird species have been identified, three-fourths of those recorded in Arizona. These riparian habitats provide the necessary requirements for bald eagles, gray hawks, yellow-billed cuckoos, great blue herons, Mississippi kites, and many other birds.

locator map for Arizonia riparian areas

After a drive through the Bill Williams Delta National Wildlife Refuge, look at the surrounding hills: the difference in vegetation is remarkable and demonstrates how important this riparian habitat is to the wildlife of Arizona. Remote Alamo Lake State Park is along the same river, and has a few more facilities for us two-leggeds.

Closer into Phoenix, the Hassayampa River Preserve and Robbins Butte Wildlife Area are fairly easy to get to and fascinating besides. The Hassayampa especially has a wide range of both riparian and desert frequenting wildlife.

Imperial National Wildlife Refuge and Mittry Lake, along the Colorado River, is a festival of wetlands-loving birds in the middle of some of the Sonoran desert. Not far from the Mexican border, Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe National Monument is a true oasis in the Sonoran.

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On the higher, eastern side of the state, three riparian areas offer diverse charms. Isolated Gila Box Riparian Conservation Area has dramatic, raftable canyons. A manageable drive from Tucson, Empire-Cienega Resource Conservation and San Pedro National Conservation Area have interesting historical traces as well as plenty of wild creatures.

In the desert, where you find water, you'll find people as well as animals. Sometimes too many people. In a limited way, Arizona's protected riparian areas help to shift the balance.

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