Ranching is a culturally, historically, ecologically, and politically important livelihood in the Southwest. With more than two-thirds of the land area in Arizona classified as rangeland, any change in the ability of ranchers to continue their range activities could have considerable implications for the rate and direction of land use change, the balance of ecological and economic resource needs, the pace of urban development, and trends in water consumption and conservation.
To understand how ranching is impacted by climate variability and change, this research: a) compiles a profile of Arizona’s ranchers, with an emphasis on socioeconomic characteristics in the southeastern portion of the state; b) identifies the physical, social, and political-economic factors that make the livelihoods of ranchers vulnerable to climatic variability; and c) determines whether or not ranchers can mitigate their vulnerability with improved access to information on climate.
The prolonged sequences of dry and wet years that are common in the region, interspersed with high year-to-year variability, present substantial challenges to ranchers and range managers. Most of the state’s cattle ranches rely solely on rain-fed range to support their herds. Drought conditions can result in significant declines in forage production and nutritional quality. Failure to respond to these changes with appropriate management can compound the effects of drought on already stressed vegetation, resulting in poor range and animal condition. In the 1990s, Arizona experienced two severe droughts and at least as many years of high moisture conditions. As a consequence of diminished winter rains in 1995–1996, many ranchers did not have enough forage to support their cattle. The persistence of dry conditions forced some ranchers to resort to emergency coping strategies while other ranchers left the industry entirely.
Researchers collected statistical data on livestock operations with 100 head of cattle or more from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Census, the USDA Economic Research Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, the Arizona State Land Department, and the Arizona Agricultural Statistics Service. Additionally, researchers conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with ranchers and mailed out a written survey to livestock operations in the southeastern corner of the state. The interviews were conducted in Cochise, Santa Cruz, and Pima counties using the survey as a guide. The responses were reconstructed from notes taken during the interviews and from recall. While the most recent interviews (1999) were all conducted in person, some of the interviews during the previous drought year (1996–1997) were conducted over the phone. A total of 17 ranchers were interviewed, 11 in the fall of 1996 and spring of 1997 and 6 more in February 1999. Of the ranchers interviewed, one was Mexican-American, another was Native American, and the remainder were Anglo-Americans. In addition to ranchers, interviews with several livestock auction managers and range management experts contributed to the analysis.
The results (Conley et al., 1999) suggest that the ranchers are sensitive to a variety of factors in addition to climate variability. Other factors include adverse market conditions, land use policies, political pressures, and individual management strategies and resource access. Vulnerability to climate variability varies within the ranching sector, with smaller operations being the most vulnerable since they do not possess the capital to undertake large investments and make changes in operations based on long-term forecasts with an unknown track record. The ability to cope with drought is further complicated by changes in environmental policy and pressure from urban growth. In these circumstances, ranchers reported being tempted to sell their private ranch property to development interests. Although our pilot study identified smaller operations as the most vulnerable to climatic variability in the context of policy and economic uncertainty, these operations reported less utility in climate information. For large operations, the utility of climate information to ranchers in southeastern Arizona would be increased if the climate information were provided within the decision-structure used by ranchers. More specifically, climate information incorporated into the sources of information upon which ranchers base their decisions (i.e. journals that contain market data) could prove to be an effective method for improving ranchers’ information for making decisions.
Conley, J., H. Eakin, T. Sheridan, and D. Hadley. 1999. CLIMAS Ranching Case Study: Year 1. Report #CL3-99. Tucson, AZ: Institute for the Study of Planet Earth, The University of Arizona.
Eakin, H. and J. Conley. 2002. Climate variability and the vulnerability of ranching in southeastern Arizona: a pilot study. Climate Research 21:271-281.