Through this project, we intended to carry our comprehensive vegetation monitoring on the four grazing allotments in Red Rock Canyon for five consecutive years. The data obtained provided accurate descriptions of the vegetative communities, particularly in the uplands and the riparian areas. This information provides a baseline from which we can measure future trends in key vegetation parameters including plant species composition, ground cover, botanical composition by weight, and frequency of plant species (especially perennial grasses).
In addition, we compared our monitoring sites to similar ecological sites considered to be in excellent condition using the “similarity index.” With the participation of each rancher in collecting field data, we insisted on the participation of the Forest Service range staff from the Sierra Vista Ranger District (FS). Working together built up good relations and mutual trust between the ranchers and Forest Service. At the end of the project (fall 2007), all sites except one could be classified in “good” condition and several were rated as “excellent.” The riparian areas were fulfilling their ecological functions as determined by the FS “Proper Functioning Condition” methodology.
We held workshops for riparian grazing practices and techniques for measuring. We also opened up our discussion of monitoring results on the Red Rock watershed to other ranchers and conservation organizations. Our outreach brought nine new ranches from eastern Santa Cruz County into the Canelo Hills Coalition. Our outreach with SARE money sponsored 14 rural kids at the Society of Range Management (SRM) Natural Resource Conservation Camp, a week-long summer camp focused on the importance of conservation in today’s world.
BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES
The Red Rock watershed encompasses 20,000 acres of rugged, mountainous terrain above 4,000 ft elevation classified as Mexican Oak Savannah/Sonoran semi-desert grassland, located about 20 miles north of the Sonora, Mexico, border. Average rainfall varies from about 12 to 30 inches. Almost the entire watershed is contained within the Coronado National Forest, administered by the Sierra Vista Ranger District. The watershed comprises part or all of four ranches: Collins C6 Ranch-Crittenden/Seibold Allotment; Vaca Ranch-San Rafael Allotment; Red Rock Ranch-Kunde Allotment and Open Cross Ranch-Papago Allotment. Total area of the four ranches is 51,000 acres, of which Red Rock makes up 39%. In 1990, the FS cut the number of permitted cattle in Red Rock by about 50% and fenced off the permanent waters. Two of the allotments, Seibold and Kunde, ran cattle year-round in the creek bottom and hadn’t developed livestock water in the uplands. This practice degraded the riparian area and was thought by the agencies to be harmful to the area.
Consultations during the mid- and late-1990s with Fish and Wildlife Service placed additional restrictions on grazing, and each of the Biological Opinions contained a recommendation to close the entire watershed to grazing. The data used to support the Biological Opinions were limited in time and scope, and did not take into consideration changes in grazing management and stocking rates that occurred since 1990. It seemed to us as if the FS and US Fish and Wildlife Service were building a case to eliminate grazing. However, the data used to justify that action were incomplete and outdated and didn’t match what we, the ranchers, were seeing on our allotments.
Alarmed by this threat, the ranchers formed the Canelo Hills Coalition with three objectives in mind:
1) Contract with the University of Arizona for comprehensive vegetation monitoring and assessment of the condition of the vegetation communities.
2) Build and repair fences and develop new livestock waters in the uplands to bring cattle up out of the creek bottom, consequently spreading grazing impacts over all allotments.
3) Involve the FS as a partner from the get-go.
The SARE grant paid for four years of monitoring and some of the expenses of coordinating coalition activities and outreach.
Baseline data on ground cover, fetch, plant species frequency, vegetative production (lbs/acre) and plant species composition were collected using pace frequency and dry weight rank methods. In pace frequency, a 40cm by 40cm frame is placed on the ground along a previously established transect line, at every other step, until 100 frames have been recorded. Transects, or monitoring sites, had been previously established by the FS for their monitoring purposes using Parker Three Step transects.
Precipitation was measured at each monitoring site, broken down into summer and winter totals.
The five-year interval included a drought in 2002-03, the second driest two-year period since 1910, followed by 2006-07 when summer rainfall was near the long-term average, although winter precipitation was still somewhat less than average. We could observe the changes in vegetative communities during drought and during short-term recovery. The five-year study also provides a baseline from which we can follow mid- and long-term changes in future years.
Herd rotation in rough, mountainous terrain where cattle tend to congregate in the bottoms is required to maintain plant vigor, forage production and plant diversity.
Impact of grazing on the vegetative communities in the watershed was negligible compared to the impact of moisture (or lack of it). Drought is the driving force behind changes in vegetation communities over time.
Plant diversity in the watershed is high; we found 187 species, and more could probably be added from the riparian areas (sedges and rushes) with further study.
Because we used FS transects, we could compare the appearance of the same area from photos and data collected in the 1950s-1970s with our results. Overall, bare soil decreased and ground cover, especially litter, increased markedly from the 1950s-1970s to the present.
Riparian pastures improved markedly with winter only grazing. The C6 ranch started its pasture rotation in 1998, resting East and West Red Rock pastures for approximately 10 months and grazing them only in November and December at relatively high stocking rates. By 2006, the creek banks had stabilized with soil deposition and abundant growth of deer grass. Young willows, cottonwood, walnut and shrubs had taken root and grown tall enough to shade the creek channel. When running water is present, trench pools and rills provide adequate fish habitat. Locating upland waters for livestock contributed to beneficial changes in grazing patterns, with cows spending more time in the uplands.
The similarity index (SI) determined from the first year’s data ranged from 41% to 90% throughout the watershed, and all but one was above 52%. According to FS classification, these SI indicated our rangeland was in good to excellent condition.
BENEFITS FOR AGRICULTURE
The major benefit is that grazing will be maintained in the Red Rock Canyon watershed. We now have solid evidence that our rangeland and riparian areas are in good condition, and we have accurate, comprehensive descriptions of the vegetative communities. We also have a 5-year baseline from which we can look for medium and long-term trends in conditions as each ranch continues its monitoring in the future.
The Red Rock ranchers now understand the process of rangeland monitoring, why it is important in range management and to the agencies (FS and F&WS). Water and fence development, and rotational grazing practices have improved ground cover, litter and live plants, thereby reducing soil erosion and loss, increasing water retention and improving water quality being discharged by the watershed into Sonoita Creek. Installation of the new grazing practices and improvements over the entire 51,000 acres are estimated to reduce sediment production by about half over 10 years.
Ours was a local project producing local benefits. Two ranches have received significant increases in stocking rates because of the monitoring results. On the C6 Ranch, our weaning weights increased ~50 lbs because of increased forage. In addition, by working together with FS during monitoring, we now have good working relations and a measure of mutual trust built up with Sierra Vista Ranger District. To the extent our model can be transferred to other ranching watersheds in the west, Red Rock can be a positive example for others.
Perhaps the most significant result of this project was to get ranchers and FS range staff working together in the monitoring process in the field and in the analysis and discussion of results during meetings of the CHC. When people from diverse backgrounds get down on their hands and knees to look closely at plants and soils, stereotypes disappear and a measure of mutual trust and respect can develop. They learn from each other, and much of the confrontation and conflict disappear.
REACTIONS FROM PRODUCERS
The CHC coalition has expanded to 12 ranches encompassing about 150,000 acres, including the watersheds of nearby Babacomari and Santa Cruz rivers. Being part of CHC helps them to qualify for grants from the AZ Department of Agriculture. All these ranches but two were already doing rangeland monitoring, and one of the two not monitoring is starting next year. In keeping with our local, informal approach, monitoring and improvements projects will be carried out on a local watershed basis.
CHC co-sponsored two workshops, one on methods and uses for determination of use attended by 47 ranchers and agency people, and the second on grazing management in riparian areas attended by 49 with a mix of ranchers, FS, BLM, and state land managers. In addition, we opened up the CHC meetings where we discussed monitoring results. The last meeting held Nov. 16, 2007, was attended by 47 people with diverse backgrounds all interested in rangeland health.
Our initial proposal included development of an “In the Field” educational opportunity for 4-H kids and others to learn about plant growth and regeneration. Instead, we found through Kim McReynolds of UA Cooperative Extension that SRM has a weeklong summer camp on Natural Resource Conservation, and we paid the tuition for 14 kids from our area to attend.