Learning the importance of environmental stewardship at Bar Heart Ranch

By Elle Ross, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

Arizona in December sounded like the perfect escape from the impending Montana winter. I was expecting sunshine, shorts, and walking through lush fields of green. My expectations were dashed as rain and the threat of snow canceled our plans and I am so glad I didn’t get what I thought. Bar Heart Ranch was gracious enough to accommodate our group and provided an incredible excursion across their property, delving into the nuances of range management in Arizona. 

Ann and Reuben met us in the cold morning for a history of their land as a third generation cow/calf operation. The Bar Heart Ranch is a public lands ranch, meaning they operate as tenants, held accountable on government-owned land. In Arizona, most of the land is divided in ownership in thirds, with one third Tribal, another State land and the remaining third held by federal agencies, like Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the Forest Service. One of the most fascinating parcels we learned about was the dedicated Exclosure. As Reuben described, it was “a fascinating snapshot of ecological time standing still”. While Exclosure projects are dedicated to reclamation and protection, hoping to increase herbaceous activity, animal diversity, and water retention, this site has remained static for the last 60 years. In his assessment of this land, Reuben revealed insider information that “ranchers hate trees, especially juniper”. In a state like Arizona, an established juniper tree can make a tremendous difference in soil health as junipers demand so much water intake. It was incredibly helpful to have this visual and perspective as we learned more about Bar Heart Ranch.

As we continued on our tour of their lands, we learned more about the necessity of water, soil health, and animals in land management. Bar Heart Ranch is dedicated to environmental stewardship, which became more apparent with each aspect of their work. They highlighted the intrinsic relationship between grazing animals and grass plants in order to create a harmonious, thriving ecology. The pronghorn antelope is also managed under their lands as the range is a key habitat, also with appearances from deer and elk alongside their calf/cow operations. The biggest threat to all the animals is drought. So in management of animals and plants, Bar Heart Ranch recognizes three key variables in grazing patterns: time, intensity, and frequency. 

In running such intricate and large-scale operations, Bar Heart Ranch is quick to note the importance of working across agencies for best practices, management and good ol’ fashioned communication. From grant availability, to mutual projects, and monitoring equipment, Bar Heart Ranch works closely with Natural Resource Conservation Service, BLM, Fish Wildlife & Game, Forest Service and state agencies. One example of the complexities of working toward collective goals and better management is working with the Forest Service for assessments and carbon monitoring, which the range is required to collect data on, receives assistance from NRCS and reports the findings every 3 years.

While this is essential for providing accurate data and a tenant within the Forest Service, with changing environmental threats, like climate change, agencies are forced to address crises that are becoming more and more prevalent. Like many of the western states, Arizona has faced crippling fires and  extreme drought, putting enormous pressure on states and federal agencies to address these immediate dangers. Meanwhile, land range ranches like Bar Heart feel the consequences of resource depletion in trying to maintain their lands. One tangible solution Reuben and Ann upheld was this focus on environmental stewardship and development of carbon sequestration models. Bar Heart was an incredible opportunity to explore the deeply rooted challenges, successes and partnerships of managing a public land ranch. Despite the lack of sunshine, the dedication to sustainable land management far exceeded any expectations.