Cowpies and potshards and an abdication of responsibility in Arizona

Grazing damage adjacent to a rock art site, Sonoran Desert National Monument. Photo G. Anderson/WWP

The Sonoran Desert National Monument was established in 2001 with very specific terms about how grazing should be managed on these lands. The Proclamation basically said that grazing should be permanently banned from parts of the monument and could only continue on portions of the monument where it was found to be compatible with resource protection. (You can read all about the early days of Western Watersheds Project’s involvement with the Sonoran Desert NM, but the short version is in 2008 we had to sue to get the Bureau of Land Management to start the process of determining grazing compatibility and in 2013 we filed another lawsuit because of their flawed determination process. We won that lawsuit in 2015 the Bureau was compelled to reassess its plans.)

During the Trump Administration, the Bureau of Land Management seized the opportunity of the court’s 2015 remand to expand grazing under its 2020 Resource Management Plan. To do this, they needed to determine if grazing was compatible with resource protection, for which they generally use proxy measures like rangeland health standards to assess things like wildlife habitats and cultural sites.

The 496,000-acre monument proclamation specifically identifies the need to protect and preserve:

“… [M]any significant archaeological and historic sites, including rock art sites, lithic quarries, and scattered artifacts. Vekol Wash is believed to have been an important prehistoric travel and trade corridor between the Hohokam and tribes located in what is now Mexico. Signs of large villages and permanent habitat sites occur throughout the area, and particularly along the bajadas of the Table Top Mountains. Occupants of these villages were the ancestors of today’s O’odham, Quechan, Cocopah, Maricopa, and other tribes. The monument also contains a much used trail corridor 23 miles long in which are found remnants of several important historic trails, including the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, the Mormon Battalion Trail, and the Butterfield Overland Stage Route.”

With such a rich array of archeological and cultural sites, you might think they would want to take a hard look at the effects of cattle trampling, cow pies, increased erosion, and other livestock-caused unnecessary degradation of these places.

You might think that, but you’d be wrong.

In this April 2020 email discovered through the Freedom of Information Act, the Arizona Bureau of Land Management’s State Archaeologist admitted that he “has never thought livestock grazing results in adverse effects in the 106 process, if the allotments are properly managed. I have always made findings of No Historic Properties affected for livestock grazing activities.”

By finding that no historic properties are affected, the agency is relieved of any obligations such as identifying historic properties, evaluating historic significance and effects, or consultation, and then, you know, actually protecting them. So, what exactly is this guy getting paid to do?

It’s appalling that the Bureau of Land Management would rubberstamp grazing authorizations like this, especially since his caveat – “if the allotments are properly managed” – is easily proven to be an baseless assumption. (That map is old, but it’s the most recent map we’ve got.) A huge percentage of western public lands managed by the Bureau are completely failing land health standards and many more have only outdated assessments or none at all.

In other words, the largest land management agency in the U.S. doesn’t even know the effects livestock have on cultural sites and, at least in Arizona, doesn’t seem to think that’s any big deal. We know that 1,400-pound cattle trampling ancient pottery will destroy it. We know that cattle tend to rub against ancient walls, toppling them over. And we know that a priceless and irreplaceable cultural legacy, spanning thousands of years of human occupation, is being destroyed everywhere that cattle are turned loose and left unattended on our public lands. So why, again, is the Bureau of Land Management allowing this to happen on lands specifically set aside to protect and preserve archaeological treasures and historic trails?



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  1. Rich Avatar

    Thank you for providing an excellent reminder of the sad state of our nation’s archaeological resources and the BLM’s complicity in allowing them be destroyed by turning a blind eye to the destruction caused by subsidized herds of cattle.

    I recall hiking in one of the unique and spectacular canyons of the southwest, carefully stepping around cowpies, and seeing the tip of an arrowhead barely visible sticking out from under a cowpie. I cleared away the crap and was surprised to find it was still mostly intact in an area where everything else had been trampled to dust or broken into unrecognizable shards. I moved it to a somewhat protected ledge near some ruins where it hopefully will remain safe at least until the cows rub away all signs of the cultural legacy of the ancients in that canyon.

    1. Rkeefe Avatar

      That story sounds like a load of crap. An arrowhead sticking out of a cow pie. I mean seriously? Cattle have been here over a 150 years. By the way cow pies are biodegradable.

  2. Ted Avatar

    Stop the Rats, I mean Californians and easterners from invading our great State. That’s a much grander environmental destructive practice that’s going on currently. Most likely You are the part of this rat Infestation, I mean. California and Easterner infestation of this great beautiful State.

    1. Colleen Buser Avatar
      Colleen Buser

      Where did yiu come from????
      Personally, my Dad was in the AirForce and was stationed here. We moved from Iowa. And were we ever happy to be in all the glorious sunshine. Leaving behind DEEP SNOW!!!!😳😁😁☺☺☺😊

  3. For the Record Avatar

    They’re only in it for the money.

  4. Rick Custance Avatar
    Rick Custance

    It would appear that this State’s problem is education, or lack of. Why personalize and attack this article’s author? Why such a lack of analytical thought? Read the article and comment on the facts. Sadly, the same could be said of many of this great state’s politicians and voters.

  5. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    “if the allotments are properly managed.”
    So WHEN & WHERE have these ever been “properly managed”? National Monuments and Wilderness Areas should NEVER have been rented out as grazing allotments! For crying out loud – Point Reyes National Seashore is a prime example of that!
    And Ted? I come from NYS – will likely never have the opportunity to see any of these wonderful places. But I have to agree the infestation of “tourists” in our National Parks and Refuges makes me so angry. These places need to be PROTECTED from humans. Whats the point in going there if you are surrounded by idiots taking selfies? I guess I dont have a very good opinion of most human beings these day. Lost it over the last 4 years.

  6. Duane Alexander Avatar
    Duane Alexander

    I’ve traveled this planet, I’ve seen some of the most beautiful natural sites. But, while reading this article I see both sides of the issues.
    Btw, I’m considered a desert rat by this article, I’m a Midwest implant. But being such does not justify over grazing. The western USA currently has several different problems hitting them/us all at the same time…. The continuous drought conditions, has not produced or made it possible for the natural plants in this area to recover… These cattle are eating the area into a new desert. The lack of water, if humans don’t like the high temperatures, what does that say for the other animals in the area….
    I guess we will see what happens as time advances. But the only outcome I can see, is more invasion do to the need to feed…

    Our government will always make laws or agreements, based on history. There was a period when those laws or agreements did protect the local environments, and historical sites. Those times has changed, so should the laws or agreements made, for the protection and safety of all living things in those areas.

  7. Catch Twoto Avatar
    Catch Twoto

    I live in northern AZ and have seen what these cattle do, they devastate the land. They will chew a spot to where’re its completely clear, just dirt. I’ve seen them chewing on land mark post & signs. They ranchers complain about the wild horses but that’s nonsense. Horse never cause such damage. They completely crush anything they walk on ie; pottery, artifacts etc. The cow pies are everywhere. They destroy creek beds & shore. They do not need to be everywhere. Saying that they do not cause damage is completely ignorant, at best. It is reckless, negligent & self-serving to allow this. Arizona is a beautiful state with a rich & unique history both written& visible. It’s the visible history that is being trampled & eradicated by cattle.

  8. suznick at Avatar
    suznick at

    In our area, cattle is the number one industry. The animals are grown in feed lots. The meat is more tender and tastier. The penchant for open grazing is an attempt to maintain a life style, not produce beef.

  9. Peggy B Avatar
    Peggy B

    I totally agree the federal land were we ride the 4×4 out back of us in Morristown has been totally destroyed by the cows and then when they run out of food there better make sure your property is fenced (at your cost) or you will have nothing so tired of the mess!!!

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