Ranching for Conservation along the U.S./Mexico Border:

Thirty-eight miles from the Arizona/Sonora border lies a fourth-generation ranch managed by two young ranchers, Sarah and Joe King. The ranch spreads over 55,000 acres of private and state land, rising up over the Baboquivari Mountains. Sarah and Joe raise 450 head of grass-fed cattle to sell at auction, slaughtering only a few due to the lack of local processing options.

Ranching in the borderlands, with little forage and water, is no easy task. Sarah and Joe have unique struggles and impressive triumphs.

Located just an arm’s stretch from the border between Mexico and the United States, Sarah and Joe navigate and cultivate a host of relationships with U.S. Border Patrol and migrants.  This reality, for the most part, is unheard of and unknown to suburban neighborhoods in nearby towns and cities.

Many border-crossers begin their journey in Nogales, Mexico, either alone, in groups or in a group led by a coyote.  Migrants are often told that they won’t need much food, water or special clothing because they’ll arrive in Phoenix, Arizona (the capital) three days after they begin their journey.  But that journey is more than 180 miles. While a person may be able to walk 10 or 20 miles in a day, depending on age and ability, this terrain includes the steep mountain crags in the Baboquivari’s.  According to Sarah, climbing five miles in a given day over the mountains would be a reasonable estimation. A few months ago, one woman crossing the border arrived at the K.A. Ranch wearing stiletto shoes; her son was barefoot. 

Sarah sees border-crossers approximately twice a month, but sometimes more frequently. By the time migrants arrive at the King’s Anvil Ranch, they’ve often run out of water and food and suffer from heat exhaustion. These conditions by themselves are enough to induce desperation or belligerence in an otherwise non-violent person.  Last year, Joe came across a dead man.  But not all border-crossers are seeking a new life in the States.  Sarah and Joe also live in a drug-smuggling corridor. 

Ranching on the border grows more complicated still.  Migrant trails result in changes to geomorphology: Water flow is altered, increasing run-off and erosion.  Furthermore, border-crossers leave trash in their wake.  A few miles from the King’s Anvil Ranch there is a trash pile as big as a house.  And because migrants primarily eat packaged or tin foods with long shelf lives, this trash becomes problematic for cattle, too.  For instance, if a cow steps on a tuna can, its skin will literally grow around the can and become infected.

Finally, Sarah and Joe understand the necessity of having a working relationship with the United States Border Patrol, which includes sharing with them the importance of ranch etiquette, such as closing fences so the cattle don’t escape to another pasture.  The Border Patrol’s new ranch liaison has been a huge help to Sarah and Joe.

But despite these hardships and challenges, the King family has worked this land for generations.  Nestled in the heart of the Altar Valley, this ecosystem is host to some of the most biologically rich and ecologically threatened biotic communities in the entire world. Sarah and Joe ranch side-by-side with other, multi-generation ranches that, apart from the Tohono O’odham Nation to the west, make up the largest unfragmented watershed in Pima County.  These families have come together in the last 17 years to form a collaborative group called the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance.  Along with other organizations and citizens, the Alliance enhances the watershed through science and restoration projects. 

Even before the Alliance came into existence, the King family was actively working their landscape to restore the land and maintain its longevity for generations to come.  Joe’s grandfather started working with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) back in the 1950s.  The King family planted crops for livestock forage and erosion prevention.  They removed invasive mesquites that deprived native grasses of sunlight and necessary moisture.  They implemented cross-fencing and pasture rotation.  Some pastures lacked water, so they built water infrastructure–pipelines to wells and aquifers–so that animals didn’t need to walk the long distances to rehydrate.  With increased water access across the ranch, cattle could move seasonally, giving pastures a chance to rest (reducing soil compaction and erosion) and regenerate.

Today Sarah and Joe look out across their landscape and study what native grasses are blooming.  They do NRCS monitoring at different sites.  They’ve reintroduced fires.  They’re using solar technology to pump water.  Earlier this year they hosted a watershed restoration project, inviting Bill Zeedyk and Steve Carson to install rock structures that harvest upland rainwater to reestablish vegetation and prevent erosion.  The Border Patrol came out to help, too. 

In the coming months, Sarah and Joe will begin to prepare for Fall Round Up.  They’ll wean mama cows in pens by the big hay barn and sell calves at auction, on the internet or to private buyers.  They’ll navigate with and around Border Patrol in one of the most active border-crossing corridors in the United States. They will put the cows out with the bulls in the lower pasture and herd on horseback to the road and fence lines. Sarah and Joe will look for ways to reduce erosion and watch for blooms of native grasses.

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