Arizona rancher Rich Collins has turned mandatory decrees to protect endangered species into a sustainable ranching plan that looks so good his once-angry neighbors are joining a coalition to collectively manage for healthy rangelands, better riparian habitat and improved livestock production. He did this by documenting the impacts of careful management while grazing his Forest Service allotments.

Four ranchers owned grazing allotments in the Red Rock Canyon on the Coronado National Forest when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found the endangered Gila topminnow in the perennial, intermittent stream that provided most of the livestock water in the canyon.

“I assumed that if we protected the habitat and met our obligations of the formal agreement, we’d be okay,” Collins says. But, he soon found out, he was wrong.

“The net effect was that our numbers were cut in half, with no opportunity for appeal, and they fenced all perennial water so we had almost no livestock water in the canyon,” he says.

With help from a SARE farmer/rancher grant, the four ranchers hired range monitoring experts to conduct annual range health assessments, including monitoring plant species composition and annual production. The experts used the NRCS Similarity Index, which provides a guide for the types of vegetation to expect at an ecological site that is reaching its full potential. Technicians compared vegetation at sites with matching soils, aspect and climate to each index site.

Then, the ranchers received funds from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to drill four wells, install more than 20 miles of new pipeline and build new fences to enable them to develop rotational grazing plans on each ranch. A key factor in getting the awards was the ongoing monitoring program that allowed the ranchers to document improvements in rangeland and riparian health, as well as reductions in soil erosion. The improvements benefited not only the 20,000-acre Red Rock watershed, but another 30,000 acres of adjacent public and private rangeland.

"The riparian areas have come back amazingly and the uplands have improved,” Collins says. “Monitoring showed we were in compliance on the public lands and helped us make management decisions on our private land, too. You have to manage the ranch as a whole unit.”

Although the Santa Cruz County ranchers almost lost their crucial grazing permits and resented the federal agencies for more than 10 years, the Canelo Hills Coalition has changed attitudes enough that members and agency personnel can discuss issues openly – and enough so five nearby ranchers recently joined Collins and his neighbors.

“We’ve got 115,000 acres in the coalition now, and we’re all pretty happy with the way things are going,” Collins says.