Ranchers With a ReputationRanchers and environmentalists are rarely on the same page, and they're even less likely to be one and the same. The Magoffins are among the rare exceptions. Although cattle are their first priority, the family is gaining recognition for their efforts to protect endangered plants and animals.
By Adelheid Fischer
Douglas The sky islands are the state's version of big sky country. In the high-desert grasslands of Southeastern Arizona, the land rolls without pause until it T-bones the horizon. Only then does it take a deep breath and begin to rise in gentle swells. Behind these foothills, massive mountains shoulder their way up and out of the arid valleys. Ridges neatly fold this way and that like origami, and distant peaks emerge from the creases to scrape the clouds. It's the kind of place where small things are easily overlooked or lost, like a hawk that can spiral up into the dry, clear air and then suddenly disappear from view.
But Anna Magoffin and her husband, Matt, seem to have a knack for keeping tabs on little things in this big place. Over the past three decades, they've raised two sons and many head of cattle on a remote ranch located some 20 miles east of Douglas. During that time, they've earned something of a reputation for protecting endangered plants and animals on their property — a national reputation. Articles featuring the Magoffins' efforts have appeared in publications including The New York Times, Washington Post and Smithsonian.
On an early morning in June, Anna Magoffin emerges from her house near Guadalupe Canyon. Long-legged and trim in jeans and a denim shirt, she looks every bit the competent outdoorswoman that she is. A tour of the family's 22,000-acre spread begins a few miles south of the ranch house, climbing a steep limestone ridge that bristles with flame-tipped wands of ocotillo. This time of year, the breeze carries the sweet, sun-warmed scent of catclaw acacia. "I love that smell," she says, breaking her strong, even stride just long enough to take in the distant view of the Sierra Madre that looms just over the fence line that divides the Magoffins' property from Mexico.
But the view isn't the main attraction here. Anna directs her gaze to the ground where, nestled into the rocky debris, there's a smattering of tiny cactuses. Covered in cottony white areoles, they look more like a collection of dust bunnies than plant matter. Anna explains that they're Cochise pincushion cactuses, a plant so rare that it has been documented in only three sites in Cochise County and in one other place across the border in Mexico. In spring 2010, Bill Radke of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collected a tiny bee from the pale-yellow blossoms of one diminutive plant and sent it to entomologist Robert Minckley at the University of Rochester, New York. He identified the insect as Macrotera parkeri, a species that has been collected from only three other sites in Mexico and Texas. It's a "very rare bee on a very rare cactus," Minckley noted in an email to the Magoffins.
Since the 1990s, the Magoffins have actively managed several ponds on their property for another rare species: Chiricahua leopard frogs. In the process, they've helped to redefine how citizens and government agencies can collaborate on endangered-species protection. And their example has encouraged other private landowners to carry out similar conservation measures on their own properties.
It all started when Matt worked for the nearby San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge. There, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists noticed that leopard frog populations were disappearing. Chief among the culprits were invasive bullfrogs, which have become agents of ecological disaster. Bullfrogs are among the most voracious amphibians, preying on leopard frogs in every stage of their development, from eggs and tadpoles to adult frogs. Frustrated scientists watched as the refuge's native leopard frogs were wiped out.
The animals are adapted to such localized extinctions. The species survived for millennia by taking up residence in many different pockets of water across the landscape. So if drought or disease wiped out one population along a stretch of stream or wetland, nearby survivors could repopulate the vacated waters. Their survival strategy, Anna observes, was simple: "Don't put all your eggs into one basket." The leopard frog was so successful that its historic range covered a wide swath from Arizona's Mogollon Rim to northern Sonora, Mexico, and east to parts of New Mexico.
But the spread of exotic species, in addition to the outbreak of a deadly disease caused by the chytrid fungus, have eliminated Chiricahua leopard frogs throughout much of their former range.
But not on the Magoffin ranch. While leopard frogs disappeared from the refuge, Matt noticed that their cousins were flourishing on his property in a 1-acre pond known as Rosewood Tank. It turns out that isolated impoundments like these have largely escaped the invasion of exotic predators and lethal diseases, making them critical oases in the efforts to save leopard frogs from extinction.
But the Magoffin ranch was not a foolproof haven for frogs, either. When the 1994 drought hit, Rosewood Tank began to dry up. The Magoffins deepened the pond and began hauling a thousand gallons of water to the site each week. "It was just enough water to cover their little backs," Anna recalls.
Summer rains gave them a brief respite from their labors before another drought gripped the region in 1995 and 1996. The Magoffins resumed their water-hauling routine. This time, however, they secured grants for windmill-operated wells from state and federal governments, as well as from an association of conservation-minded ranchers known as the Malpai Borderlands Group. The windmills ensure a constant supply of water to the Rosewood Tank and an additional little pond that the Magoffins simply call Frog Waters.
Over time, the Magoffins improved Frog Waters, lining the bottom with cement and adding rocks to enhance the habitat. Burroweed and dense stands of sacaton have grown up around the perimeter. "You can drive up to the pond and roll your windows down, but don't get out of the car or they'll disappear," Anna cautions. Poking above the surface are the heads of the speckled frogs, their glum-looking faces all pointed in the same direction, like bored commuters on a train platform.
The Magoffins patrol their ponds frequently, checking especially for incursions by bullfrogs. Scientists have documented bullfrog migrations of up to 5 miles. These troublemakers already have invaded a neighboring pond that was home to leopard frogs. "Once they put on their hiking boots," Anna says, laughing, "they keep traveling."