There was a time when cow-punching defined Southern Arizona. Acre after acre of cattle country spilled across the range, some of it beautiful, some of it grazed to the nubs.
Today, the cattle ranching industry is largely in decline, a victim of shifting markets and ongoing drought. But there's one rancher who seems set for the long haul, and its name is Pima County.
Under the dictates of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, county officials have bought up a slew of area ranches, and now control around 200,000 acres, if you include accompanying federal and state grazing leases. That's just a start, they say.
In the next decade, Pima County hopes to acquire another 330,000 acres of the Marley Ranch southwest of Tucson, according to Kerry Baldwin, manager of Pima County natural resources division. Like the other ranches, the Marley includes a core of private land tied to much larger public land leases. The majority of those leases are on state trust land, says Baldwin.
But given the current drought—and what many consider a direct conflict between cattle grazing and the conservation plan's emphasis on protecting wildlife habitat—many think the county ought to get out of the cattle business altogether. Poorly managed grazing operations can pummel streams, cause erosion and ripen conditions for invasive species to take hold. And even the best run ranches still exact a toll on the land, say conservationists.
Those concerns were highlighted just before Christmas in an e-mail to Baldwin from state Rep. Daniel Patterson. Patterson had recently deer hunted on county land in the Altar Valley southwest of Tucson. He says the property resembled an overgrazed moonscape. "It was just hammered," he tells the Tucson Weekly. "It certainly wasn't good for wildlife, and it's not a good deal for the taxpayer."
In an e-mail reply to Patterson, Baldwin wrote that ranch operators would consider pulling some cattle off the range this winter and spring, "and we are working with them on the reductions. How many and when will vary by ranch and conditions.
"Another question we are working on will be establishing when or if and under what pasture conditions we let livestock numbers to (sic) increase in the future," Baldwin wrote. "We are also working with our operators to enhance rotational systems on the ranches to get more rest on pastures. With drought, funding limitations and past activities this is going to be a challenge and will take time."
That doesn't satisfy Patterson. "If the county owns the land," he says, "then why is that something they're only 'considering'? Why not just do it? The county has the authority."
But Baldwin calls it unfair to indict all the county-owned ranches—or to slap them with a sweeping mandate. The impact of cattle "is unique to each property," he says. "And it's based upon the evaluation of the property itself, what the current carrying capacity is, how much forage is being produced out there, etc."
The county works closely with the state to set those total grazing numbers, Baldwin says. "We also have vegetative monitoring plots that we go out and read. That gives us an indication of pasture condition, forage utilization and forage production."
He agrees that the numbers don't look good. "Our operators are taking cattle off because of drought conditions," he says. "Grazing in Southern Arizona is very challenged right now because of the drought, and our biggest challenge over time is having in place those mechanisms to be reactive to climactic conditions."
Some of that ranchland was also overgrazed before it came to the county, he says, and can't be restored to health overnight. "We've acquired so much property in a short period of time, it's taking us a while to be able to learn these properties and be able to work with them."
The annual price tag for operation and maintenance of those lands is roughly $900,000, he says.
But Baldwin doesn't agree with Patterson's call to yank all cattle from the range until conditions improve. "Frankly, that's a rhetorical question," he says, "rather than an actual data-driven question. These are historically operating ranches. And part of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, under which these ranches were acquired, is trying to maintain ranching as a viable economic opportunity and a lifestyle in Pima County.
"As long as that can be conducted in a way that does not destroy biological values, then the county has a commitment. Whether we graze or don't graze isn't the basic question. The question is, how much do we graze, and where is it appropriate and where is it not appropriate."
But rhetorical or not, Patterson isn't the only one raising that fundamental question. "I just don't think the county should be in the cowboy business," says Greta Anderson, Arizona director for the Western Watersheds Project.
The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan does discuss the historical importance of ranching, she says. "But the main part of that plan was to protect species. And when those two things are in conflict—and you're dealing with species that are on the brink of extinction—they need to refocus their priorities. I think we know that livestock grazing has a negative impact upon some of the species listed under the plan."
For example, says Anderson, the county's Diamond Bell Ranch southwest of Tucson is listed as jaguar habitat. "And one of the ways that jaguars move through territory is in the riparian areas—some of the thick mesquite under-story in the lowlands. It's habitat that's supposed to be protected. In this case, it's also where cows concentrate and knock out the under-story."
That impact gained added importance earlier this month when, in a complete reversal of its earlier position, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to develop a recovery strategy and habitat protection for the border jaguar.
Anderson also questions how the county has justified continued ranching on lands that it already owns—a question reflecting the fights of past decades, when conservationists attacked grazing for ravaging much of the western range, and taking a heavy toll on leased public lands with little return to the taxpaying public.
That tension has eased somewhat in recent years, with ranching seen as a bulwark against development in rural areas. But it's a moot question on county lands, says Anderson. "Here, the county has already protected the open space by acquiring the ranches. They shouldn't continue allowing for this use that has so many deleterious effects."