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ResearchThe social and ecological consequences of early cattle ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin, Arizona (page 2 of 3)

Author: William S. Abruzzi. Adapted from: Abruzzi, W. S. 1995. The Social and Ecological Consequences of Early Cattle Ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin. Human Ecology 23: 75-98.

The Aztec Land and Cattle Company

In an effort to reduce the growing debt it had incurred in constructing its western line, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad Company attempted to sell 5,424,800 acres of land granted to it by Congress in 1866. Over one million of these acres was acquired at a cost of 50 cents per acre by the Aztec Land and Cattle Company, a consortium of eastern businessmen and Texas ranching interests. The land claimed by the Aztec Company included every other section extending from 12 miles east to 50 miles west of Snowflake for a depth of 50 miles south of the railroad line. By owning every other section and by controlling all critical water sources throughout its vast domain, the Aztec Company monopolized over 2,000,000 acres of range land and, in effect, removed a substantial resource from local utilization.

The Aztec Land and Cattle Company was the third largest ranch in North America during the late nineteenth century. The Aztec Company was a direct product of the deteriorating range conditions that prevailed throughout western Texas during the mid-1880s.  The introduction of barbed wire and windmills, together with the passage of legislation favorable to small farmers, spelled the end of the open range. In order to recoup their investment before the encroachment of farmers resulted in the complete enclosure of grasslands, ranchers in western Texas dangerously overstocked their ranges. However, a drought which began in 1883, produced falling cattle prices during 1884 and a complete crash in the beef market in 1885. By the close of 1885, thousands of cattle had died and thousands more existed half-starved on a dry and desolate range.  Unable to sell their livestock at profitable prices, ranchers searched for a new range where cattle could be maintained until the market rebounded. The lush grasslands of eastern Arizona, combined with the financial difficulties of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, made the formation of the Aztec Land and Cattle Company and the relocation of thousands of starving Texas cattle on this cheaply-acquired land an attractive investment opportunity.

The Aztec Company imported between 33,000 and 40,000 head of cattle into Arizona by the close of 1887, which quickly grew to a herd of 60,000. Successive droughts, repeated economic crises, and declining cattle prices during the 1890s produced dangerously overstocked ranges within the basin, just as they had in western Texas the previous decade.

In the end, the cumulative effect of drought, range deterioration, falling prices and heavy losses of cattle from starvation and rustling forced the Aztec Company to declare bankruptcy in 1900. After only 16 years of operation, the company had to liquidate its extensive holdings in the basin, thus ending the speculative cattle ranching era in this region. However, despite its brief reign, the Aztec Company had a devastating impact on local ranges and, therefore, a decidedly negative effect on the peoples and communities that depended on these ranges for their survival.

Effects of Range Exploitation

The arrival of the Aztec Company had an immediate and severe impact on local farmers and ranchers in the region. By excluding all competitors from over two million acres of rangeland, the Aztec Company imposed a considerable hardship on the numerous local cattle ranchers and sheep herders who had previously exploited this formerly open range and who now had to compete with one another for the substantially reduced grazing lands that remained.

The most enduring legacy of the Aztec Land and Cattle Company's brief reign has been the impact it had on the local grassland and pinyon-juniper woodland communities. Widespread grassland deterioration occurred throughout the region as a result of the severe overstocking of ranges that prevailed during the late nineteenth century. Local authorities presently estimate that between seven and ten animal units could have been supported on one section of local rangeland prior to its deterioration during the 1890s. The Aztec Company clearly exceeded these figures. Grazing 60,000 head of cattle on two million acres, the company maintained animal densities of nearly 20 animal units per section, that is, between two and three times what the land could support. Overgrazing in conjunction with the disastrous droughts of the 1890s had a swift and devastating impact on the grassland community. This impact is clearly reflected in the observation of an early pioneer.

"When we came to Arizona in 1876, the hills and plains were covered with high grass and the country was not cut up with ravines and gullies as it is now. This has been brought about through overstocking the ranges. On the Little Colorado we could cut hay for miles and miles in every direction. The Aztec Cattle Company brought tens of thousands of cattle into the country, claimed every other section, overstocked the range and fed out all the grass. Then the water, not being held back, followed the cattletrails and cut the country up. Later tens of thousands of cattle died because of drought and lack of feed and disease. The river banks were covered with dead carcasses."

The overstocking of Little Colorado ranges did not cease with the demise of the Aztec Company, however. Cattle and sheep numbers remained relatively high. Apache County assessment rolls registered an average of 35,119 head of cattle and 117,762 sheep between 1916 and 1925 compared to an average of only 19,630 cattle and 3882 sheep between 1958 and 1967. Overgrazing continues to be a problem  today.

Overgrazed grassland

Overgrazing has created high degrees of bare soil (55-65% in some areas) throughout the grassland community.

Several indicators of overstocked ranges are apparent in the grasslands of the basin. One is the relatively sparse vegetation cover. Between 55% and 65% of the surface area within the grassland community is devoid of vegetation. An equally significant indicator is the relative predominance of nonpalatable perennial grasses.  The once almost pure stands of winter fat on the heavy alkaline-free soils have been virtually eliminated and replaced by snakeweed and rabbitbrush. The broad expanse of grass that once covered most of Navajo and Apache Counties has deteriorated under heavy grazing pressure and become overrun with snakeweed and pinque. Another indication of overgrazing is the expansion of juniper trees into the grassland community. The grazing habits of livestock provide the very conditions which facilitate juniper expansion. Juniper seeds germinate only after they have passed through the alimentary tract of an animal. Livestock, thus, facilitate the dissemination of juniper seeds at the same time that they remove the competing grasses which inhibit juniper expansion.

The extensive range deterioration that occurred during the late nineteenth century and its perpetuation throughout the twentieth century has significantly reduced local range productivity. Rangeland in the area today can support between one-third to one-half the number of animal units supportable prior to the1880s, and a 40% reduction in current grazing levels has been proposed as the decrease needed to restore the Little Colorado ranges to their full productive potential.

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