Caught in the middle of the perennial conflict between the drug cartels of northern Sonora and U.S. Border Patrol, the cowboys of the Atascosas fight to preserve their way of life and profession. Fences are frequently cut, and water tanks are inadvertently drained by migrants and smugglers forced into the area by the militarization of nearby towns, while cattle gates are left open by Federal Agents speeding back and forth on their daily patrols. Inexorable environmental, economic, and social changes challenge the viability of ranches in increasingly degraded landscapes. As the hottest year ever recorded in Southern Arizona, 2020 far surpassed the drought years of the early 1890’s that led to the die off of at least half of the cattle on the range. It is only with the intensive infrastructure developments and technological advancements of today that ranchers here have staved off a similar disaster. But should a time come when there are no longer cattle or cowboys in the Atascosa Highlands, evidence of their impacts will forever remain on the face of this unique ecosystem.

            As the hot brand presses to the calf’s flank, the smoke and metallic smell of burned skin rises into the air. The years new calves have been brought in from all over the allotment to the stock pen by a dry cattle pond. It is a tale that has played out thousands of times across the Atascosas, a ritual at the center of life on the isolated ranches of the Highlands. The lone cowboy, driving cattle along the rolling grasslands of the frontier is among the most iconic images of the American West. It is seared into the American consciousness like a red hot iron. No other land use has had such a profound impact on these remote landscapes, and few have been so controversial. For more than 400 years cattle have been shaping these spaces, driving management decisions and cycles of conflict, leaving an indelible mark on the land that will never be erased.

            Livestock was first introduced to Arizona at the end of the 17th century by Jesuit missionaries, whose abundance of cattle, horses, sheep, and goats incentivized indigenous communities to enter into the economic and cultural life of the Spanish Empire. These animals, along with the introduction of wheat and other European crops, prompted a dramatic change in the long established lifeways of the O’odham, who became some of the first ranchers in the Atascosa Highlands, and nearby Santa Cruz Valley. Over time Mexican, and then American cowhands would try their luck in this vast scrub grassland.

            When railroad tracks reached Nogales in 1882, ranchers could now drive their stock to nearby railway stations, and ship them off for sale to feedlots and slaughterhouses across the United States. In this unfenced and largely unregulated open range there was little incentive to preserve the native grasslands. Cattle ranching became a means to get rich quick. With investment capital from places like England and New York flowing into western ranches, cattle populations in Arizona exploded from below 40,000 in the early 1870’s to at least 1.5 million in 1891. Advertisers pitched Southern Arizona as a haven for would-be settlers across the U.S. asking,

            “Are you a stock-raiser? If so, here is a veritable paradise for your calling. Millions of acres of fine grasslands are yet unoccupied and can be had for the taking. Here are no northern snows, no Texas blizzards, no disease...There is yet room for millions of cattle in Arizona...And the fortunate man who is in possession of a good range and a few hundred head of cattle has found a short and easy road to fortune. He can sit in the shade of his hacienda, enjoy the good things of life and see his wealth increase on every hill and valley that surrounds him.” (Hamilton 1884: 401-2)

            What these optimistic authors failed to mention were the harsh realities of an arid landscape. The devastating droughts and periodic Apache raids. The lack of permanent water resources, and the quickly developing competition for land not already claimed, be it formally or informally, by other ranchers. When a major drought gripped the American Southwest from 1891-1893, the situation came to a tragic head. Cattle tanks and watering holes dried up, and starving animals wandered the range in desperation, devouring every blade of grass in reach before moving on to trees and shrubs across the withering grasslands. Over the course of this drought an estimated 50-75% of the cattle grazing the area died, and the ecological effects of this, and subsequent drought periods, has permanently changed the ecology of the Atascosa Highlands.

I. Eragrostis lehmanniana (Lehmann’s Lovegrass)
II. Eragrostis curvula (Weeping Lovegrass)
III. Pennisetum ciliare (Bufflegrass)

            In the 1930’s, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service began a program of introducing drought tolerant grasses from places like South Africa in an effort to mitigate the lingering damage of overgrazing. Non-natives including Bufflegrass (Pennisetum ciliare) Lehmann’s Lovegrass (Eragrostis lehmanniana) and Boer’s Lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula), were intentionally seeded across the range until nearly the end of the 20th century. These grasses have spread across the landscape and threaten to out compete native species. Today, large swaths of this formerly diverse prairie have given way to monocultures of these introduced plants. Intensive grazing and increased fire suppression have also led to a build up of woody shrubs such as Desert Broom (Baccharis sarothroides), Snakeweed (Guttierezia sarothrae), and Mesquite (Prosopis velutina) which thrive in disturbed soils and edge out grasses through competition for limited soil moisture. While Mesquite was historically restricted mostly to drainages and waterways, the sweet bean pods are a favored forage of cattle and other livestock. Passing easily through their ungulate digestive systems, Mesquite seeds are eaten and deposited in nutrient rich piles of manure where they germinate and shoot deep tap roots into the ground. The gradual build up of Mesquite and other shrubs has turned the grassland ecosystems of the Atascosa Highlands into expansive savannahs, where patches of grass are interspersed with thorny trees and unpalatable shrubs. One rancher gestures at the Mesquite covered hills around his home and opines "Think about it, there used to not be a single Mesquite tree anywhere on this range"

            Although many aspects of ranching remain much the same as when cattle were first introduced in the 1600’s, one major change has been the nature of land ownership. In 1906 the Atascosa Highlands became federally managed National Forest and the formerly open range was divided into leased grazing allotments. This shift from common to private range incentivized local ranchers to make long term infrastructure investments, leading to a proliferation of cattle tanks, windmills, and stock ponds to retain and direct the sparse water resources of the area. These cattle tanks have become areas of extreme disturbance due to the way cattle concentrate around them, however, they also serve as watering holes for wildlife affected by increasing drought conditions. The new land lease system managed by the federal government also forced ranchers to more seriously consider the long term environmental impacts of their livelihoods. Stock rates had to be adjusted to better reflect the land’s carrying capacity, and to help preserve the already denuded grassland for continued grazing in the future. The goal of sustainability can often go unmet, but in increasingly adverse conditions, all ranchers must consider their place in the landscape if they want to ensure their future viability.

            While some may hold onto stereotyped views of these borderland ranchers, imagining the cattle barons of old westerns, the ranchers of the Atascosas today are a self-reliant breed of people. They've chosen a hard lifestyle that requires a full financial and personal investment, they ranch along the rugged edge of the U.S.-Mexico boundary, in a difficult land. Despite the challenges facing ranchers it is likely that stock raising in some form will continue to persist, as will the tensions between ranching and environmental protection. If they continue to be in conflict neither goal will be met, but a synthesis of these often contradictory practices may result in a land ethic for the future. Whatever happens, the Atascosa Highlands will always bear the marks of tender care and callous disturbance which have defined grazing in the grasslands of the west.