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Cattle are a part of Arizona's history. Climate change, overgrazing concerns cloud their future

When you drive through parts of rural Arizona, it’s hard to imagine that cattle ranchers once came here for the grass. But Eduardo Pagan, a history professor at Arizona State University, says the state looked different a couple of centuries ago.

“You know the state that we see today when we look out our window is really not the environment that existed if you go back 200 or 300 years,” Pagan said.

Cattle ranching helped shape rural Arizona into what it is today. It was one of the five C’s that once formed the backbone of the state’s economy, along with copper, citrus, cotton and climate.  But many ideas we have about the history of grazing are wrong, and researchers say that cattle have emerged as a major driver of climate change. Conservationists say it’s time to re-examine grazing on public lands. 

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When the West was settled, Congress passed a series of laws to encourage people to take up farming. But much of the West was too dry to farm, so people took up ranching, allowing their stock to graze on public lands that had not been claimed. In Arizona, ranches helped feed men who worked in the copper mines. That was just the beginning. Eastern investors took an interest in the territory and its open range, and when Texas ranchers overgrazed their herds, they moved them to Arizona. People thought of cowboys differently then.

“That image of the American cowboy as kind of a hero and of the quintessential American. That did not exist in the 19th century,” Pagan said.

No white Stetsons. No fancy boots. No big belt buckles.

“I have read editorials in the Arizona newspapers decrying the presence of cowboys in Arizona because they were seen about on the same level that modern Americans look upon gang members,” he said.

Although some cowboys were small operators who worked for themselves, many worked for big ranches that needed cheap labor, such as the Hashknife Outfit, a large organization backed by Eastern investors.

“In the 19th century, if you wanted to insult somebody, you would call them a cowboy,” Pagan said.

'Permanently changed ecosystems'

By the late 1800s, Arizona’s range had been overstocked.

“Fencing began in the 1880s and '90s, and commonly the fencing was put up by ranchers, and they were basically trying to keep their neighbor’s cattle out or keep their cattle in," said Rem Hawes, of the Bureau of Land Management.

He said those early days of raising cattle were a free-for-all. But then in the mid-1880s, drought set in. And a cold winter. Cattle died by the thousands. There was talk of reform, but it took Congress decades to act. In fact, it took another disaster to get them to finally pass legislation.

“The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl days, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Hawes said.

The Taylor Grazing Act divided the public domain into grazing districts. The idea was to protect public lands from overgrazing. But a lot of damage had already been done, said Taylor McKinnon, of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The grazing that came with westward expansion, and the arrival of the railroad, and the arrival of huge numbers of sheep and cattle permanently changed ecosystems in the Southwest. It literally destroyed grasslands that haven’t come back, that probably won’t come back in some areas,” McKinnon said.

One thing that changed almost immediately was how fire behaved on the landscape. Before cattle arrived, fires burned frequently in Western forests. Those fires were carried by grass. But with overgrazing, the fires stopped. Over time, brush started to build up on the landscape. Other changes took place as well.

“The image of the cowboy has undergone a dramatic rehabilitation. In the 20th century certainly with the advent of American movies. Some of the earliest movies were actually westerns,” Pagan said.

'What is the best use of these lands today?'

Boone Kauffman, a researcher at Oregon State University, says that after decades of overgrazing, it’s time to re-examine grazing on public lands.

“The question that we should ask,” Kauffman said, “is what is the best use of these lands today?”

Grazing on public lands started in the days of the open range, on lands that settlers had not claimed and Americans had little use for. But with more and more people moving west, that’s no longer true. Millions hike, camp and explore these open spaces every year. Kauffman says that those lands need a rest. But with Congress gridlocked, that seems unlikely.

Congressional inaction on the issue is nothing new.

Pagan says that mining, not grazing, drove Arizona’s economy, and the cattle boom didn’t last very long.

“So the cattle industry in Arizona, it really bloomed for 10, 15 years, perhaps a few more than that. But everything really collapses toward the turn of the century,” Pagan said.

One reason for the collapse was drought.

“It was largely due to periodic drought but at the same time there was a terrible, terrible winter that hit Arizona and a lot of cattle up north, just literally froze in their tracks, I mean it was a terrible, terrible winter.”

Similar collapses took place all across the West and brought calls for reform.

BLM: Overgrazing is the exception, not the rule

But Congress didn’t act until 1934, when it passed the Taylor Grazing Act. Conservationists say the legislation didn’t do enough. So in the 1970s, Congress revisited the issue. That started a series of moves that kept grazing fees low but created a system that requires the BLM to write up environmental reports before it renews grazing leases.

“Unfortunately it hasn’t worked,” said Josh Osher, of the nonprofit Western Watersheds Project. He said the agency wasn’t able to keep up, for a variety of reasons.

“The response to rangeland reform, by mostly Republicans in Congress, was to starve the agencies of funding. So they saw all this management that was going to be required. In order to increase management you need more people,” Osher said.

The agency fell so far behind that Congress passed a rule allowing the BLM to waive the environmental reports and catch up on them later.

Hawes said the agency keeps a close record of the backlog, and that environmental assessments continue.

“And in some cases, when we go through a permit renewal, we may see that over the past 10 years and drought conditions that we’ve seen that we actually need to adjust the numbers of livestock down,” Hawes said.

He said that ranchers who overgraze are the exception, not the rule.

“You know frankly most ranchers, you know, it’s in their self-interest. They’re long-timers, they're not in this for a few years and then get out of it. They’re typically family operations that have been around for generations, so they’re really in it for the longterm,” Hawes said.

Kauffman said that what constitutes overgrazing can amount to a difference of opinion. The issue has become more important in recent years because cattle can have an enormous impact on climate change. Cows emit methane. They also consume plants, which absorb carbon.

“They defoliate native plants, they overgraze, they trample vegetation, and soils,” Kauffman said.

'Recovery rates are very, very slow'

Ranching has changed the way wildfire moves across the landscape. Ranching also helped introduce invasive plants, as new grasses were planted to offset overgrazing. Grasslands have been turned into deserts. Streambeds that once nourished shady cottonwoods and willows bake in the sun after cows eat the young trees. Wildfires burn bigger and hotter.

“From an ecological perspective, these landscapes, these desert landscapes coevolved with drought, coevolved with fire. What we’re seeing now is different,” Kauffman said.

The damage is even greater in the Southwest.

“The most arid ecosystems are going to be those that would be most sensitive to heavy use,” Kauffman said.

Hawes said his agency has begun to take climate change into account when it makes policy.

“We’ve been directed to consider climate change in our planning as well as in some of our decision making,” Hawes said.

Conservationists say the government needs to act faster. Nobody is advocating putting an end to the cattle industry. But after more than a century of overgrazing, Kauffman says that public lands need a rest.

“And so the recovery rates are very, very slow. And I think another thing is that with climate change it may be more and more difficult to recover these ecosystems,” Kauffman said.

A published report by Kauffman says that grazing takes place on 85% of public lands. But that grazing supplies a small percentage of the nation’s food supply, and conservationists say that better management would have little or no impact on the price of beef. And with climate change raising the global temperatures, Kauffman says the time to act is now.

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Ron Dungan was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2020 to 2024.