There's not much to sustain life--water, grass or other feed--on the eastern flank of the Four Peaks Wilderness Area, 60 miles east of Phoenix.
Last May, the Lone Fire scorched 60,000 acres there, including prime wildlife habitat.
The 30,000-acre 3 Bar Wildlife Area was particularly hard hit. Ponderosa pines were burned to the core. Ash replaced needles on the forest floor. This was once home to the largest concentration of bears in Arizona, and state biologists are uncertain how many remain.
The wildlife area was created in the 1940s after the U.S. Forest Service revoked the grazing permit of a rancher who was overgrazing the land. Rather than reissuing a grazing permit to another rancher, the Forest Service elected to manage the land for wildlife habitat. A key management component was to ban cattle grazing to save limited forage and water for wildlife.
So you can imagine how surprised the Sierra Club conservation chairman Don Steuter was when he hiked through a burned area of the 3 Bar earlier this month and discovered a half-dozen cattle congregated at one of the few flowing springs in the wildlife preserve.
"Pigeon Springs is pretty much trashed," Steuter says.
Along a 50-foot-long drainage below the spring, grass that should have been two to three feet high had been grazed down to a couple of inches. The scarce new forage is an oasis amid the burn, an area that would be available to wildlife had it not been devoured by trespassing cattle.
"The cows should be gotten out of there to make all that forage available for wildlife," he says.
But getting the cattle out of the wildlife area and keeping them out will be difficult, because the Forest Service signed an unusual agreement in July that allows cattle to continue grazing on a ranch adjacent to the 3 Bar Wildlife Area.
The Seven/K Ranch also burned in the fire, with three-quarters of its 32,000 acres of Forest Service grazing allotment consumed. Although the Forest Service usually requires ranchers to pull cattle from burned pastures on public land for a minimum of two growing seasons, the Tonto Basin Ranger District backed away from this policy.
District range conservationist Linny Warren says he initially wanted to keep the cattle off the Seven/K for two growing seasons. But after looking at the Seven/K's range in the weeks after the fire, Warren decided the rancher could continue to put 75 head, half of his normal herd, back on Forest Service land.
"Part of the allotment looked all right," Warren says.
The cattle were placed in two areas that had not burned. But many of the cattle keep moving out of those areas in search of forage and water.
Some go down the mountain to the north shore of Roosevelt Lake, where they are grazing in another section of the 3 Bar Wildlife Area that has been seeded for geese forage. All cattle will be removed from this area by November 15, Warren says.
Other cattle moved up the mountain to Pigeon Springs, where there are fresh, highly nutritious young shoots and plenty of water. The route to Pigeon Springs takes the cattle through vast areas of burned land, often on steep slopes. Several thousand acres in the area have been reseeded with grass, but it is unknown whether the cattle have entered the treated areas because the Forest Service lacks the manpower to monitor the cattle.
Game and Fish biologist Stan Cunningham says he's seen cattle on the 3 Bar all summer and that they regularly use Pigeon Springs. Although Cunningham isn't concerned that the cattle are causing serious damage to the burned areas, he says they should be removed.
The cattle have unlimited access to the wildlife area because a fence separating the Seven/K and 3 Bar has been poorly maintained for years and was damaged by the Lone Fire.
"There are big holes in the fence," Warren says.
Repairing the fence is a top priority, but the $30,000 to $40,000 project won't begin until this winter at the earliest, Warren says.
Forest Service officials initially told New Times they were unaware that cattle were improperly grazing on the 3 Bar Wildlife Area. When pressed, Warren told New Times that he sent a ranger up to Pigeon Springs and that the ranger indicated there was no sign of cattle.
But a New Times reporter went to Pigeon Springs with the ranger who had gone the day before, and discovered five head at the springs. There were clear indications the cattle had been there for weeks.
Range technician Hugh Dorathy was nonplussed about the discovery of cows at Pigeon Springs only a couple of hours after indicating he'd seen no sign of them the day before.
"Until they can get fences up, there isn't a hell of lot that you can do," Dorathy says.
Not so, says Steuter of the Sierra Club.
"Restoration of vegetation and wildlife should be the top Forest Service goal for Four Peaks at this time," Steuter wrote to the Forest Service. "Grazing activities should take a back seat until these goals are accomplished."
Seven/K rancher George Ewing can't understand why the Sierra Club is so worked up over a few cows grazing in the wildlife area.
"I think we have more problems to deal with five head of cattle up there at Pigeon Springs," he says.
Ewing insists he wants to keep the cattle off the 3 Bar as well because it takes time to round up the stray animals and move them back to his ranch.
"It ain't like, 'Boy, we've got plush feed over at the 3 Bar and we don't have none over here and let's push our cows over there.' That ain't how it is," says Ewing.
After the Forest Service told Ewing that his cattle were trespassing, the rancher retrieved them from the wildlife area at Pigeon Springs. But Forest Service ranger Warren says it is likely the cows will keep returning to the springs until the fence is repaired.
Ewing is a fifth-generation rancher who also runs cattle on another Forest Service allotment, the nearby 110,000-acre Tonto Basin Ranch. He and his wife don't survive strictly on ranching income. The couple operates a real estate company, selling $30,000-per-acre parcels they own along Tonto Creek, which flows into Roosevelt Lake.
Like many ranchers, Ewing has little tolerance for environmentalists.
"Why don't they put some labor and some bucks out, instead of their mouths out," he says. "Before they condemn us as cattlemen, they ought to come out and see what we do. What it takes to build a fence, to maintain what we do."
Neither is Ewing bashful about making demands of the government.
Soon after Ewing learned that the Forest Service planned to force him to remove cattle for two years, Ewing went to a meeting of a public lands task force created by Arizona House Speaker Mark Killian.
The Sportsmen, Industry, Natural Resources Discussion Group heard Ewing's complaints last summer. Not long after Ewing attended a couple of meetings, the Forest Service signed a memorandum of understanding allowing Ewing to keep half his herd on the Seven/K.
Warren insists the group's meetings--he attended one to explain the Forest Service's recovery plan--had nothing to do with his decision to allow Ewing to keep grazing cattle.
"I made up my mind before that," he says.
Hays Gilstrap, the discussion group's facilitator, says the group applied no pressure on the Forest Service to allow Ewing to keep cattle on the Seven/K. In fact, Gilstrap says he's surprised that cattle are grazing in burned areas where new forage is emerging.
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"The logic says if you got some shoots coming up, let them come up," Gilstrap says. "You need to get some coverage in there before you get any cows on them."
While Warren has elected to let cattle back on the Seven/K, other Forest Service rangers are taking a more cautious approach. The Mesa Ranger District, for instance, required another rancher to remove all his cattle from the burned areas on the western flank of the Four Peaks Wilderness Area.
Mesa District Ranger Russ Orr says, "It's a good idea to give the land a rest.