Funding to help repair habitat damaged by development, drought, wildfire

The Interior Department has awarded $619,500 to Salt River Project and the Arizona Elk Society to fund projects restoring big game habitat and migration corridors.

The funds are part of a larger initiative by the Interior Department and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, providing $11.8 million for 10 projects across seven Western states to improve habitat connectivity for elk, mule deer and pronghorn.

SRP will receive $489,500 in grant funds to restore the Beaver Creek Watershed to create healthy grass and woodland habitat for wildlife while protecting water supplies and preventing catastrophic wildfires. In collaboration with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and U.S. Forest Service, SRP is providing an additional $3.9 million in matching funds for the project.

The Arizona Elk Society has been granted $130,000 to improve winter habitat for migratory wildlife by restoring grasslands in Northern Arizona on Perrin Ranch, protecting a key corridor for ungulates in Arizona. It will also contribute $130,000 in matching funds.

“When you have voids of unsuitable habitat between great habitats, it makes it hard for animals to shuffle across the landscape,” said Zach Slinker, a wildlife biologist for the Arizona Elk Society and AZGFD. “It’s our obligation to preserve their place on the landscape.”

Why is high-quality, connected habitat important to migratory wildlife?

Ungulates like elk, deer and pronghorn are often migratory animals, responding to weather patterns, forage quantity and predator risks. Habitat fragmentation prevents animals from traversing freely, threatening herds’ ability to reproduce and survive.

As temperatures rise, snow melts and vegetation greens up in late spring, ungulates leave their winter habitat at low elevations and move to higher summer ranges. They migrate to find forage and vegetative cover to protect them during breeding season.

When fall comes, animals begin migrating to lower elevations, returning to their winter habitat to avoid the worst of the snowfall and cold temperatures.

Several stressors and physical barriers can hinder wildlife migration. Barriers like roads, fences, infrastructure and human development are a primary concern. Drought, wildfire and invasive species can also degrade habitat quality and quantity.

Although species continue to migrate across the West, about 75% of migration routes for ungulates have been lost.

“Disconnected habitats make it near impossible for wildlife to thrive on the landscape,” Slinker said.

How will these projects benefit Arizona wildlands?

SRP and the Arizona Elk Society’s projects will address invasive trees on grassland habitats using mechanical removal to allow native grasses and other types of low-lying vegetation to return.

The Arizona Elk Society will mechanically remove trees to improve winter habitat quality on 650 acres of grasslands in Northern Arizona. According to Slinker, juniper trees have crowded the landscape, outcompeting native grasses animals rely on.

The group will use mastication, a thinning technique that cuts trees and brush into small pieces to create a mulch-like material that spreads along the ground.

“The reason junipers have sprawled out on the topography is due to the control of the natural fire regime,” Slinker said. “Fire was a natural component of Arizona historically. Without that fire regime controlling the woody component on the landscape, the woody components outcompete the grass.”

Not only will removing trees from grasslands preserve ungulate habitat, but thinning projects address other threats to the wider ecosystem.

SRP’s project in Beaver Creek will remove junipers to protect two tributaries to the Verde River: Beaver Creek and West Clear Creek.

The project will protect local and downstream water supplies while revitalizing habitat for big game species. Invading junipers create wildfire risks that can damage infrastructure and communities and reduce the efficiency of runoff into the watershed.

“The beauty of these types of projects is that we can bring a lot of other perspectives,” Elvy Barton, water and forest sustainability manager for SRP, said about the collaboration between AZGFD and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. “They really round us out in terms of addressing impacts to wildlife in these areas.”

Hayleigh Evans covers environmental issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send tips or questions to

Environmental coverage on and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

Sign up for AZ Climate, our weekly environment newsletter, and follow The Republic environmental reporting team at and @azcenvironment on Facebook, X and Instagram.

You can support environmental journalism in Arizona by subscribing to azcentral today.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Grants to help SRP, Elk Society improve wildlife habitat