An increased population in Maricopa County will result in a greater number of people attending the parks and less room for animals.
Maricopa County’s population is estimated to increase from the current 4.5 million to 5 million by 2022, according to the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Demographics and Trends Analysis.
Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Director R.J. Cardin noted that for the past three years Maricopa County has been the fastest-growing county in the country.
Maricopa County parks have seen a 41% increase in visitation since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, according to Cardin.
The increased population in the county, as well as new circumstances with the coronavirus pandemic at large, calls for new protocols in place for parks and lakes in the county as well as new threats for wildlife.
The increased population will lead to more home development as well as other necessary buildings to help sustain it. Over time, the developments have moved closer and closer to Maricopa County parks such as White Tank Mountain Regional Park.
When the park was developed in the 1960s, there was hardly any urbanization, but now it has housing on all four sides of the mountain.
“Where we used to be a very rural park system, we’re becoming more suburban in many areas,” said Cardin.
Parks have seen an increased number of visitations, which is a threat to the public with the coronavirus pandemic still impacting the world.
To keep numbers lower to help limit the spread of COVID-19, Maricopa County Parks and Recreation started blocking off every other parking space.
Lake Pleasant Regional Park in Peoria would have to close its gates by 8 or 9 a.m. because it would reach the 50% capacity cap, said Cardin.
“Our parks tend to be very busy on the weekends. Lake Pleasant is a very good example because we started seeing high visitation rates on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,” said Cardin, “because people were either not working or they had much more flexible schedules because they were working from home.”
The increased population of Maricopa County doesn’t just impact the park systems, but it also plays a very big role in wildlife conservation throughout the state because an increased population causes more building to be done and therefore forces animals to navigate through new structures, according to the Arizona Game and Fish website.
Arizona Game and Fish and Arizona Department of Transportation are working together to build wildlife connectivity structures in Arizona, said Arizona Game and Fish Department public information officer Tom Caden.
According to the Arizona Game and Fish website, the wildlife connectivity structures are made to help support the wildlife movement as the county continues to progress. “As new roads, communities, and energy corridors are put on the ground, the wildlife that traditionally moved through the area are forced to find ways around or through the new structures.”
These structures include passageways above and below roads that allow animals to safely cross. The location of these structures requires lots of data collection to know where the animals tend to migrate.
The wildlife connectivity structures have led to a 95% decrease in collisions between vehicles and elk and bighorn sheep, said Scott Sprague, project manager and road ecologist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department is “doing a study right now with mule deer,” said Sprague. It is working to gather data for possible wildlife connectivity structures on the west side of White Tank Mountain Regional Park and the new Interstate 11 that is in the works.
This study will provide the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) information on where the deer go for food and how they migrate across the land. The Arizona Game and Fish Department is working with ADOT to build possible wildlife connectivity structures with the new interstate.
This will prevent vehicular collisions with animals on the new highway.
“From a wildlife population standpoint, the bigger animals are the ones that take the harder hit when they lose animals,” said Sprague.