As part of the southwest, Arizona was part of the great cattle trade that swept the American west before the turn of the century. Cattle, much like copper, helped to shape Arizona’s early economy and continues to be a large influence on the landscape. It also works as a cautionary tale of how fragile the earth can be.
Early Arizona Cowboy Culture
Put simply, cowboys started moving into the Arizona territory because they overgrazed lands in Texas. Livestock had been in Arizona over a hundred years prior to this migration, introduced by the Spanish to and thereafter practiced by the Tohono O’oodham natives. Railroads and windmills brought rapid expansion of the industry into a boom state by the 1890s. However, it took a mere 20 years for the ranchers to overgraze and completely destroy vast swaths of fertile grassland, leaving behind eroded topsoil and scrub plants in their wake. Compounding the man-made disaster was a drought that hit in the early 1900s, killing off about 3/4 of Arizona cattle. Hoping to redeem the past, modern ranchers are taking a different approach.
Cattle ranching stirs up some pretty strong reactions from some: It’s wasteful, uses large amounts of water for little food return, and carbon dioxide emissions produced by cattle are destroying the environment. Ranchers in Arizona consider themselves stewards of the local environment, since they have a large stake in its well-being. As such, they have brought into practice grazing on US rangelands. Close to 85% of these rangelands can’t support crop growth and ranchers work to prevent overgrazing to preserve the land. They also manage overgrowth to prevent wildfires, which can be particularly brutal in the dry Arizona climate. Ranchers also plant trees for windbreaks, practice planting practices that prevent erosion, and some of their curated lands have become habitats for endangered species, such as the Mexican Grey Wolf and the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.
That being said, I find Arizona beef delightful! You can get fresh cuts from local ranchers just about anywhere in the state. My recommendation would be to visit a local Mexican restaurant, kick back, and enjoy some steak tacos.