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Arizona’s Watchable Wildlife Project


This feature is a reprint of a story that originally appeared in Arizona Wildlife Views.
By Joe Yarchin

Getting out into the natural world helps people relax and is inspirational. No matter where you live in Arizona, wild plants and animals are close. To most people, watching wildlife is one of the easiest, most enjoyable pastimes possible — and anyone can do it anywhere, anytime, at almost any age. It is a fun and inexpensive activity for the entire family to appreciate together.

It may surprise you to discover that this delightful activity is also a thriving economic machine. In fact, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey showed nature tourism was a $46 billion national business in 2006. That’s equal to the amount of revenues from all spectator sports (football, baseball and other sports), all amusement parks and arcades, casinos (except casino hotels), bowling centers and snow-skiing facilities. The 71 million wildlife-watching participants in 2006 were more than four times greater than the attendance at all National Football League games during that year’s season.  

As a segment of the broader tourist industry, nature tourism got going in the early 1980s. Put simply, it is tourism based on the natural attractions of an area. Wildlife-viewing recreation is one kind of nature tourism. Examples include bird and wildlife viewing, outdoor photography, wildlife artistry, nature festivals, wildlife tours and visits to parks and wildlife areas. Watching wildlife is one of the fastest-growing segments of the tourism business.

With the increasing popularity of wildlife viewing, the Arizona Game and Fish Department must carefully manage both the human and wildlife aspects of the activity. This helps ensure that positive wildlife experiences occur with no harm to the animals. That is what one of the department’s newest programs, the Watchable Wildlife Project, intends to accomplish.

“Watchable Wildlife” is the management of wildlife and its habitat for sustained wildlife-viewing recreation. The Watchable Wildlife Project involves managing the resource, improving sites, teaching the skills and responsibilities of being a wildlife watcher and partnering to maintain sustainability.

A Natural Destination

Arizona is a popular destination for many wildlife watchers, and it’s not hard to guess why. With more than 900 animal species and 50 million public acres of natural land to explore, the state provides some of the best wildlife-viewing opportunities in the nation. Our deserts, forests, grasslands, mountains and canyons are home to rare species of birds and other animals — some found nowhere else in the United States or the world.

Given the state’s abundant natural attractions, it’s no wonder that in 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey found that more than 1.3 million people 16 years old and older fed, observed or photographed wildlife in Arizona. This means our wildlife-viewing participants outnumbered the populations of six states.

Watching wildlife here, you are bound to witness some spectacular sights. It helps to know where and when to look, what to look for, and how to look for wildlife in any given habitat. The Watchable Wildlife Project develops and distributes information that gives people the tools they need to enjoy responsible wildlife watching in Arizona.

The Watchable Wildlife Project also supports community-based nature tourism efforts, which include nature-related festivals, expos and workshops that highlight an area’s natural attractions. These activities are not only fun and educational, but also bring economic development to communities, develop regional pride, highlight the value of wildlife conservation and nature tourism, and encourage community and regional partnerships.

Each festival around the state has its own “personality.” While all are nature-oriented, some cater to bird-watchers specifically, some emphasize family and group activities and some combine environmental themes with a focus on viewing nature and wildlife. Statewide, festivals vary in length from a single day to four days of activities. These types of events encourage people to get out and enjoy the state’s wide-ranging natural attractions.

An Economic Force for Good

Seeing wildlife in natural settings can leave a viewer with a positive, unforgettable and personal experience they will recall for years to come. Observers gain a better understanding of how wild animals act in a natural environment. They get more familiar with how animals forage for food, where they live and how they interact with other wildlife.

Obviously, lots of people enjoy watching wildlife in Arizona. In 2006 tax dollars, wildlife-viewing recreation generated $84 million in local and state tax revenues. Nature tourism in Arizona directly supported more than 15,000 jobs with earnings of $366 million. In the same year, the $840 million dollars spent watching wildlife was 40 percent more than the all-time U.S. box office earnings by “Titanic” — the top-grossing film in history.  The wildlife-viewing recreation revenue created a $1.2 billion total economic effect on Arizona. These numbers show that nature tourism already is established as a major economic force in our state.

The Watchable Wildlife Project uses the impressive numbers to encourage city, county and state government, community tourism interests and a variety of businesses to support wildlife viewing and related recreation. Assistance with the “how-to” and “what-for” of watchable wildlife is available for people or businesses interested in wildlife-viewing recreation. The department also helps communities by conserving and enhancing wildlife habitat, to improve the odds of having a fun, educational and satisfying experience waiting nearby for visitors or residents.

Managed wildlife-viewing recreation benefits both people and wildlife. People benefit from enjoying time spent in the natural world watching wildlife. And the wildlife resource wins when people who enjoy viewing birds and animals become advocates for conservation, improving conditions for native species.

Arizona’s wildlife belongs to the people of Arizona, after all. So the primary goal of the Watchable Wildlife Project is to meet public expectations, while continuing to safeguard the well-being of the wildlife. As the economic impacts of wildlife-viewing recreation and public interest in these activities grow, the Watchable Wildlife Project will continue to offer its expertise and assistance.

Managing Success
The department successfully manages for quality hunting experiences, but is relatively new at managing the viewing experience and the inherent impacts. Putting the same amount of energy into this area — taking the next step in natural resource management — is essential. Managing wildlife-related recreation well will allow the department to keep quality opportunities available both now and in the future.

It’s easy to see why a partnership between the Arizona Game and Fish Department and nature tourism interests is important. Wildlife recreation and management programs fuel an economic engine for Arizona communities. As they participate in wildlife-viewing activities, people become more familiar with the department, and take actions that support management and conservation efforts. Everything wins: the public, communities and businesses, conservation interests, local economies, the department — and wildlife. 

—Joe Yarchin, Arizona Game and Fish Department watchable wildlife program manager

The Arizona Watchable Wildlife Tourism Association makes finding Arizona’s rewarding wildlife-watching activities and opportunities easy, promotes responsible nature tourism and encourages conservation efforts. The Arizona Game and Fish Department helps the association promote the economic and social benefits of wildlife-related recreation, conservation and hospitality.

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