For ranchers, SW drought means cuts in herd sizes
From the rolling hills lying along the Sonoita highway, rancher Mac Donaldson says drought and climate change have slashed his cattle herd.
Across Arizona, the drought has touched dozens of public-lands ranchers such as Donaldson in the past decade.
On federal Bureau of Land Management land, the number of cattle has dropped nearly 38 percent statewide since 1998, to about 242,000 animals run monthly.
On Forest Service land, the number of cows for which ranchers paid grazing permit fees dropped nearly 32 percent statewide from 2000 to 2007, to about 287,000 head run monthly.
The drought was a prime factor knocking down cattle numbers, the agencies' officials say. Another is turnover in the ranching business, in which a rancher sells his private land to a developer or speculator, and the rancher's accompanying public land grazing permit stays vacant for a time.
"People are holding these ranches in some cases as investments rather than businesses," says Rick Gerhart, a Coronado National Forest range planner.
For Donaldson, land that used to produce 800 pounds of forage per acre now produces 400 pounds per acre. He now breaks even on his ranching where he used to earn money, he says.
Additional environmental rules have also forced down cattle herds, says Donaldson, who operates the Empire and Cienega allotments. He runs 1,000 head these days on 72,000 acres of federal land. His permit allows 1,500.
"In the old days before there was much scrutiny or regulation, people ran as much as they could," he said.
He personally believes that climate change underlies this drought, but not primarily the human-caused variety.
"I think nature is the 800-pound gorilla in this deal," says Donaldson, whose family has ranched this area 30 years.
"There's obviously a (weather) response to carbon emissions and tearing down the forests in Brazil," he continues. "But if you look at the planet, since we broke off from wherever we broke off from, molten rock, if you look at it from a geological perspective, we're seeing change. But I think it is much larger, bigger in scope, akin to the ice age."
Over in the oak woodlands west of Sonoita, rancher Richard Collins says the drought hasn't affected business yet but he expects it will — and he's preparing. Collins says his allotment got 20 inches of rain the past two summers.
Unlike Donaldson, he has little doubt that greenhouse gases are big factors in the current warm weather.
"The notion that is something new is really not true, although the degree of it might be. I think the people who are waking up to this are people who live in town and have to run their air conditioning more often," Collins says. "The people who run the land, we deal with it all the time — it's not something Al Gore showed us."