The 118,000-acre Buenos Aires Game Refuge in Southern Arizona’s Altar Valley was created in 1985 “to establish and manage populations of the masked bobwhite quail” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Altar Valley is also a major route for illegal immigration and drug smuggling.
Thousands of people cross the border there every year. One source says that somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 people per year had crossed the border, but local ranchers say the numbers are much lower than that now. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) which runs the Refuge has issued a travel advisory warning people about the area:
“As a result of illegal immigrants crossing our borders, other unlawful acts do occur within the Refuge. Some of the illegal immigrants are armed, dangerous, and determined to complete the trip at any cost. Most often these are smugglers and drug runners. They may drive a stolen vehicle or they may hire human ‘mules’ to carry their contraband in homemade backpacks.”
“These illegal routes are lined with empty water jugs and other trash. Illegal immigrants frequently stop to camp, collect wood and start fires. These fires sometimes escape and cause damage to wildlife habitat. Trash left at these sites is not only unsightly, it is unsanitary and attracts a variety of scavengers. Nearby water sources are often so fouled by pollution that wildlife can no longer use them. Some overnight rest stops are so heavily used that the damage is extensive. During the rainy seasons, trails and vehicle routes become avenues for floodwaters, further increasing the resource damage.”
One area rancher said, “There are quite a few government agencies with various responsibilities to protect us from the onslaught of illegal activity that exists on or near our border. That activity creates dangers to us personally and that is our greatest concern. That activity also harms our environment and undermines many of the environmentally protective measures that we ranchers have committed to and are undertaking. I hope all the agencies can work closely together so that they can succeed in their mission.”
The fact that there still is illegal immigration means that the federal government is not adequately enforcing the ESA to protect the environment nor enforcing border security to protect people in and near the Refuge.
A short history of the area complied from FWS and local ranchers:
The Altar Valley was first homesteaded by Pedro Aguirre, Jr. in 1864 as the “Buenos Ayres Ranch.” He had been running a stagecoach and freight line between Tucson and mines near Arivaca, Arizona and Altar, Sonora, Mexico. Aguirre drilled wells, built earthen dams, and created Aguirre Lake. This ensured a water supply for cattle in the Altar Valley.
As railroads opened new markets, cattle numbers in southeastern Arizona exploded. But an extreme drought from 1885-1892 killed at least 50% of each herd. The remaining cattle stripped the land bare. This occurred before establishment of modern ranching practice. When the rains returned, no grasses were left to absorb the water. The rain eroded the land, creating the washes and gullies we see today. The earthquake of 1887 may have contributed to the erosion by either raising the land or lowering the water table.
Between 1909 and 1985, Buenos Aires Ranch changed ownership several times. It became one of the most prominent and successful livestock operations in Arizona. From 1926 to 1959, the Gill family raised prize-winning racing quarter horses. During the 1970’s and 80’s, the Victorio Land and Cattle Company specialized in purebred Brangus cattle, which are well suited to hot, dry climates. The ranch sold bulls and bull semen nationally and internationally with some bulls selling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In 1985, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the Buenos Aires Ranch, and it became a National Wildlife Refuge. FWS brought in pronghorn antelope and masked bobwhite quails (which promptly became food for coyotes and hawks). FWS abandoned wells and waterlines because they were “unnatural.” With the lack of water, much of the wildlife left. (More recently, FWS re-established some of the stock ponds.) The Altar Valley is the northern fringe of the bobwhite’s range. At the time of Refuge creation, a study of the bobwhite was going on at Las Delicias ranch. That study indicated that the bottom of the valley was too extreme for the quail.
A more detailed history is presented in the book Ranching, Endangered Species, and Urbanization in the Southwest, by Dr. Nathan Sayre (2002) University of Arizona Press. (The book is available in local libraries).
Sayre recounts the history of cattle ranching in the Altar Valley by examining both the economics and ecology of ranching. The Altar Valley was a lush grassland, but one without perennial water sources. In a parallel story, Sayre examines the failed effort of the federal government to establish the Masked Bobwhite quail in the region, first by working with the ranchers, and then by buying out the ranches and establishing the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. When the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge was created, cattle were removed and so were most of the developed water sources.
Sayre starts by exploring the history of the masked bobwhite quail, a subspecies of the northern bobwhite, from its discovery in 1880s, its disappearance around 1900, to its return to the Altar Valley in the 1970s. During this period, the masked bobwhite acquired great symbolic value among ornithologists and wildlife managers as a victim of cattle grazing. Sayre concluded that the effort to reestablish the bobwhite was doomed to failure because the Altar Valley is at the very northern extreme of the quail’s habitat. They die in freezing weather which occurs frequently in mid-winter on the Refuge.
Subsequent chapters recount the development of ranches from the 1880s to the 1970s and the constant battle to provide water and forage while suffering droughts and floods. These chapters deal with the “cattle boom” in the 19th century, its ecological consequences, and how successive owners dealt with these conditions.
Sayre notes that more than 25,000 captive-bred birds have been released on the Refuge at a cost of $68 million, but few if any survive. “Despite the removal of livestock, Refuge biologists have not succeeded in establishing a self-sustaining population of masked bobwhites.” “An ambitious program of prescribed burning, intended to simulate the natural fire regime of the desert grasslands, has not resulted in any change in the vegetation on the Buenos Aires.”
The flyleaf of the book notes that “The creation of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge has been a symbolic victory for environmentalists, but it comes at the cost of implicitly legitimizing the ongoing fragmentation and suburbanization of Arizona’s…rangeland. Sayre reveals how the polarized politics of the rangeland conflict have bound the Fish and Wildlife Service to a narrow, ineffectual management strategy on the Buenos Aires, with greater attention paid to increasing tourism from bird watchers than to the complex challenge of restoring the masked bobwhite and its habitat.” (The Buenos Aires is now under a new director who is working on another updated plan.)
The Refuge has been a favored route for illegal immigration. It has also been the site of various accidental or intentional unplanned range fires set by the border crossers either for the purpose of being located and rescued or perhaps as decoys to draw resources away from routes being used for narcotics transportation.
But humans are not the only invaders. Because of earlier government soil conservation practices, the area of the Refuge was converted in large part to a plantation of exotic grass species. It started around 1900. According to a UofA News story, “Combined overgrazing and drought resulted in ecological disaster in the 1890s… A concerned federal government intervened at the turn of the century. Pioneering researchers lacked modern technology and time to experiment with re-establishing native grasses after their initial attempts to restore these grasses failed. Their worldwide search for the best ‘miracle’ grass to reduce soil erosion and provide livestock nutritive forage ended in the 1930s in South Africa, where they found Lehmann lovegrass. It established readily from seed, was easy to handle, and thrived on less than 10 inches annual rainfall. Lehmann lovegrass was widely seeded across southeastern Arizona from the 1940s through the 1970s.”
According to a local expert on desert grasses, Lehmann lovegrass “was the grass of choice for the highway department that seeded it alongside the roads to prevent erosion. The prolific production of very fine seed with the extra water afforded by runoff from highways contributed as much as anything to the spread of the grass. Additionally, the seed was readily picked up by vehicle tires and transported everywhere. Lehmann lovegrass greens up earlier in spring and stays green longer in the fall than many native perennials, so it provides good forage at those times; it is not the grass of first choice during the prime summer rainy season–native perennials are first choice– but fills its own important niche at other times. Lehmann tends to occupy the lower areas between hills and is slow to move up hills, especially the common limey, rocky slopes.” Lehmann lovegrass initially displaced native species and decreased the biodiversity of the Refuge, “but it seems to be hindered from displacing native grasses where those are well established.” Area ranchers report that native species are returning in some areas.
The Fish & Wildlife Service has failed in its original goal to establish a viable, permanent population of masked bobwhite quail in the Altar Valley. It seems that the major result of this experiment has been to turn productive land into non-productive land.