A cow grazes by the side of Sonoita Creek in early July.  Photo by John Hughes

On July 27, the Arizona State Land Department cancelled a long-held Special Land Use Permit (SLUP) issued to a local rancher at Patagonia Lake. Oro Blanco Ranch, owned by Robert Noon, which held a grazing permit on the state trust land, lost the permit, “for failing to use the lease as authorized under the terms of the lease,” according to Bill Fathauer, State Land Department Policy and Communications Manager.

“The cancellation process was initiated in late November 2021 after it was determined the permit holder had unauthorized livestock on the parcel,” he wrote in an email to the PRT. 

Local groups and concerned citizens have complained about degradation of land and riparian areas by the cattle legally grazing within Patagonia Lake State Park along Sonoita Creek for the past several years. But the situation came to the attention of many for the first time last December when a hiker on a popular birding trail north of the lake along Sonoita Creek suffered injuries while being attacked by a cow. Lake Patagonia State Park Manager Colt Alford immediately closed the trail, and the cattle were rounded up and removed from the area. The trail was reopened, but cattle have since returned.

In response to growing concern for the safety of birders and hikers, as well as for the environmental protection of Sonoita Creek and the riparian area that surrounds it, a group of residents started a letter writing campaign to state officials to raise the alarm about this situation, calling for increased monitoring of the area, better fencing, and removal of all cattle from the riparian area. That effort seems to be paying off.

“I’m glad [the SLUP cancellation] has finally happened,” said Bob Hernbrode, a retired biologist who served on the Arizona Game and Fish Commission and was involved in the letter writing campaign. “I’ve been trying to get the cows out of there for years.”

Noons’ cattle, which are predominantly white Charolais cattle, are not the only ones that have been seen along the creek trail. Other breeds of cattle are prevalent in the area, presumably treaspassing cattle owned by other ranchers who run cattle on leased land that abuts the State Park. 

Hernbrode said that although there is an existing fence that surrounds the riparian area, it is in disrepair, making it easy for cows to get through. In some areas, there is evidence to suggest that the fence may have been intentionally cut.

Cattle, both legal and trespassing, have caused problems along the creek and lake for the past few decades. Friends of Sonoita Creek, an organization that works to protect and restore the water and natural habitat of Sonoita Creek, stated in a recent call to action that the cattle had “trampled vegetation, compacted soils, broken down stream banks, [caused] erosion, silting of the lake, reducing the size of the lake, all new growth eaten.” There is so much cow manure along the stream-side path that it is referred to locally as the ‘Cow Poop Trail.’

There are economic repercussions to the degradation of Sonoita Creek, as well. Patagonia Lake has an international reputation as a birding area and the thousands of birders who visit the park contribute to the economic health of the county. 

“The cows have had a tremendously negative impact on the diversity and density of birds in the riparian zone,” Hernbrode said. “They have taken out a great deal of what is so important to the birds. Less birds equates to less birders.”

“There needs to be no cows in there for at least a decade to allow that riparian zone to recover,” he added. “It would also take some active conservation work to help it recover, to stop the erosion, to allow native plants to come back and to remove the exotic plants that have invaded.”

Patagonia Lake was constructed in the late 1960s. The lake and surrounding land were acquired by the state and opened as a state park on April 1, 1975. The State Park Commission has no jurisdiction over the presence of cattle at the lake, as the land encompassing the lake falls under the jurisdiction of the State Land Trust. The open range law in effect in most of the state gives cattle the legal right to graze wherever they want unless they are fenced out. 

Advocates agree that fencing the entire State Park would be an unrealistic goal, but they argue that it should be possible to repair or replace the existing fence surrounding the riparian area. It remains to be seen if funds would be available for the project, or to monitor the fence line to prevent cattle from entering the park. 

As recently as July 10 there were still cows along the creek, when local resident John Hughes reported seeing ten cows on the birding trail.