Western rangeland management and conservation at Arizona’s Bar Heart Ranch

Bar Heart Ranch rangeland.

By John Gifford, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

Increasingly, ranching and conservation are viewed as mutually exclusive practices. One is centered on resource consumption while the other advocates for the protection of wildlife, wild lands, and natural habitats. As wild species worldwide continue to lose vital habitat to suburban and exurban development, sprawl, and agriculture, the relationship between ranching and conservation grows more complicated. Ranchers claim the right to utilize public lands—even lands that are deemed “critical” in the effort to save wildlife—citing grazing agreements that go back decades and generations, while environmentalists argue that cattle have no place in arid regions like the American Southwest. Their rationale? Cattle destroy vital wildlife habitat. And as the number of imperiled species grows, more of our public lands are designated as critical habitat in the effort to save them from extinction. Of course, this deepens the rift between ranching and conservation. One wonders: can the two coexist? Can economically viable ranching occur on lands simultaneously managed for natural-resources conservation? 

Recently, students from the MS Program in Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University were introduced to a family that has built a business in beef ranching on public lands while focusing first and foremost on environmental stewardship. This family’s motive was to improve habitat for the herd of fleet-footed ungulates—pronghorn—inhabiting their part of the Prescott National Forest in northern Arizona. In doing so, they improved their cattle operation.

ASU’s Sustainable Food Systems cohort met Anne and Reuben Verner on a crisp, overcast December day. Their venture, the Bar Heart Ranch, is a family owned cow-calf operation that has been in business since 1972. The 73,000-acre public-lands ranch, which consists of both privately owned property and public lands utilized via U.S. Forest Service-issued grazing permits, is actively managed in that juniper trees have been cleared from the property, thereby benefiting native grasses and forbs. Cattle grazing, too, plays a vital role in the health of these lands.

Reuben Verner, a third-generation rancher, cited two primary goals for his family’s operation: 1) producing high-quality protein in 2) an environmentally-sustainable and productive way. “Environmental stewardship is number one,” Reuben told the ASU cohort, “and the most important part of our mission.”

Part of the Verner’s property is a fenced 40-acre exclusion zone that has been left in its native state, unmanaged, since the 1940s. Reuben and his mother Anne introduced the students to this tract by explaining this is the alternative to land management. What the students found was 40 acres of juniper trees that were so parched from the ongoing drought that many of their branches were denuded and brittle. The ground was largely bare, the soil compacted, and its prospects for supporting native wildlife extremely limited. It was apparent that water and sunlight were limiting factors for any potential ground vegetation. This arid environment favored the junipers, which limited the available forage for the local pronghorn population.

Reuben said that with the construction of two nearby highways, and the railroad tracks bisecting his property, the pronghorn herd was essentially trapped. Telemetry studies have revealed that the animals do not cross these barriers, which negatively impacts the herd’s genetic diversity and thus its prospects for long-term survival.

What remained was a vast rangeland that, if left in its natural state, favored juniper trees rather than native grasses and forbs for the pronghorns. It also limited water supplies. Fortunately, in the 1980s, the Verners cleared the juniper trees from approximately 6,000 acres of their ranch. This permitted the growth of native grasses and forbs favored by pronghorns…and cattle.

“We don’t plant or scatter seed on native range,” Reuben told me by email in December 2021, “but we do monitor for species diversity, etc. and take it into consideration with our management.”

Reuben said his family carefully analyzes these grazing lands to determine optimal carrying capacity. Currently, given the limitations from the drought, he runs one cow per 640 acres. The US Forest Service calls this an “Adaptive Management'' concept whereby the “number of cattle authorized annually is balanced with forage supplies and water availability.” This type of grass management prevents overgrazing while allowing for the type of surface disturbance and fertilization that encourages regeneration and new vegetative growth, thus benefiting the land. The key, Reuben said, is managing the timing, intensity, and frequency of grazing.

As for water, Reuben said there are five wells and 33 stock tanks located throughout this property. In addition to hydrating his cattle herd, these tanks provide vital water for the local pronghorns, as well.

When rains do come to this parched corner of the North American continent, the blanket of native grasses and forbs facilitate the absorption of this precious water into the ground where it can improve soil structure and contribute to increased plant cover. Healthy grasslands not only support herbivores like pronghorn, but they also play an important role in sequestering carbon, a quality that makes them even more valuable given today’s warming climate. Alternatively, in the absence of such vegetation, much of the scant precipitation that falls here, particularly during the summer monsoon season, would be lost as runoff. 

By juxtaposing the Bar Heart’s exclusion zone with its grazing lands, the Verners presented a case study in rangeland management, one that revealed the stark differences between managed and unmanaged lands, and one illustrating why ranchers are often some of our best and most ardent conservationists.  

This blog is part of a series from the December 2021 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.