Men on horses, Sky Island Ranches - El Coronado Ranch in Southeastern Arizona, Nov. 11, 2014. Pictured: Jesse Hoge, Kevin St. Clair. 2014, AZ, Sky Island Grasslands, Working Lands, Wilcox, La Cienega Ranch, Animals/Wildlife|Mountains|Recreation|Lake|Rural/Agriculture|, Chris Hinkle
Chris Hinkle

This restored Arizona ranch is where the wild things are

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When Josiah Austin bought Cienega Ranch 25 years ago, it was in rough shape. The 19,000-acre spread on the Arizona-Mexico border takes its name from the cienega, or grassy marsh, that used to fill the valley floor, a lively green oasis in an otherwise austere landscape.

“But by the time I came along, that cienega had been dry for oh, probably at least 150 years,” says Austin. Instead of a rich, productive wetland, the ranch was cut with a network of steep, eroded gullies and covered in dusty scrub. With little water and not much to eat, birds and wildlife were a rare sight.

In the centuries after Europeans arrived, widespread overgrazing accelerated erosion across the Southwest, damaging the landscape’s ability to retain water. Today, intact cienegas are rarer than a rainstorm in the desert— but Austin is working to change that. “I feel very strongly that the cattle operation should coexist with wildlife,” he says. “The cattle operation is important, but it’s just one aspect of my responsibility to this land.”

Josiah Austin has been ranching in southern Arizona for decades. He's learned about restoring arid, overgrazed desert to productive, diverse grasslands--through lots of trial and error.Photo credit: Chris Hinkle

In the decades he’s owned Cienega Ranch, Austin has tried everything he can think of to restore the land’s natural function as a healthy, welcoming place—for cattle and wildlife alike. He’s built berms, dams, and rock walls to capture and store stormwater. He’s experimented with herd size and grazing rotation to make sure his cattle don’t eat more ground cover than the land can easily regrow, and he’s torn down miles of fences that prevented deer and other large mammals from moving freely across the land. He’s also working with biologists and schoolkids to reintroduce wildlife—turkeys, quail, fish, and prairie dogs—to the land where they once roamed.

“A lot of times students have gotten wrong impressions about ranchers in general,” Austin says. “It’s nice to let them know that we can be environmentalists and conservationists.”

The Trust for Public Land recently helped protect Cienega Ranch, ensuring the land will never be subdivided or developed. Austin plans to invest profits from the sale of a conservation easement to buy and restore more nearby ranchland.

How can he tell his restoration projects are working? “Now I can stand on my front porch and look out over a sea of grass, instead of dust,” he says. “It’s a nicer view for anyone driving through the valley.”

And humans aren’t the only animals enjoying the upgrades. Last year, motion activated cameras captured photographs of a jaguar on Cienega Ranch—just the seventh of these elusive big cats to be spotted north of the Mexico border since 1996. The victims of widespread habitat loss, hunting, and even a federal eradication campaign, jaguars essentially disappeared from the U.S. by the mid-20th century. The Cienega Ranch sighting sent a thrill through the community of biologists and conservationists working to bring jaguars back to their historic range in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Cienega Ranch is within Arizona's Sky Islands region--arid grasslands punctuated by isolated mountain ranges. Differences in rainfall and temperature between mountains and valley make the Sky Islands one of the most diverse ecosystems on the continent. Photo credit: Chris Hinkle

The jaguar sighting is another indicator of an ecosystem in balance. “It means the space is good for wild animals, and there’s enough deer and other prey on the ranch for the jaguar,” says Austin. “If this ranch had been cut up into 40-acre estates, with lots of dogs and cats and people, that jaguar wouldn’t come around.”

Over the years, Austin has won recognition and awards for his restoration efforts. But he hardly thinks he’s an outlier among the ranchers he knows. “Ranchers in general are starting to be more and more wildlife-friendly,” he says. “We were always wildlife-friendly, but there’s just more science and information about best practices now than there used to be. The more we learn, the better we can run our operations to benefit all living things.”

Comments

Melissa Peckinpah
With boundless appreciation and gratitude. To Josiah Austin. You give me hope. Thank you for helping to preserve and protect our great country.
Tom
A rare bit of good news for a change. Good for him; especially in these days of attacks on our land from the Orange Invertebrate occupying the white house.
Jim Pinkert
I come from a family that has deep roots in conservation. Living in South Dakota, the next best thing to a 3rd world country, means that trees are bulldozed, sloughs are drained, grasslands are broken into farmland, and conservation takes a backseat to "progress". The conservation efforts of my family have a continuous link all the way back to my grandfather. While I am no longer on the farm, my brothers still operate with the ideal of "giving back". Just about every other farm doesn't have the habitat and food sources to support pheasants, turkeys, deer, and all the other species that come with being "good stewards of the land".
Donette Erdmann
This is awesome! Thank you
Susan Briggs
I loved especially the items on community gardens and Cienega Ranch!
Lesley Giger
I would like to receive email updates. Thank you.
Gail Wilke
Thank you.
Judy Nordquist
I am interested in the Trust for Public lands
Marcia
Thank goodness for organizations like this that can be the watchdogs and gatekeepers for the protection of our invaluable public lands.
vicki
I recently watched a nature program on our public tv station...they talked about restoring dry, vacant land...they gathered their cattle into tight herds for grazing...in the process, the cattle broke up the dry, hard ground they walked on..they fertilized the ground with their cow pies. they were moved often to keep the balance of grazing. after a time and a little rain, the area is being restored to a grassland. a very interesting show....don't know if you are following this practice, but thought I would pass the info on to you...keep preserving nature!
Marcella Crane
This is great story and congratulations to the rancher in S. AZ that realizes that with science and data, he can co-exist with natural wildlife to bring part of the lands that once was vibrant. We need more like him to help spread his best practices across the West. Thank you.
Joan Shannon
An incredibly heart warming story, love this rancher. I live in Sedona and wish our City Hall and National Forest Service would do a fraction to protect our environment instead of looking for every tourist you can find who are destroying the place. Thanks for this wonderful story. Joan Shannon faithfuljoan@earthlink.net
Kathleen Trinity
I wish something could be done to save the wildlands off the I-5 and SR138 in California where Tejon Ranch plans a massive urban development for 57,000 people. Many of us have fought to save this pivotal area of unique ecological value, but the moneyed interest has made traction with Los Angeles County.
Karen
Thank you for having the vision and the forethought to bring this land back to its glory.

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