Ivan Aguirre Ibarra bent down and dug his hands into the soil around his feet. The ground had a corrugated or rippled look and a slightly damp feel to it this early November morning. All around were saguaro, cholla, and senita cacti, mesquite trees, desert broom, and other Sonoran Desert plants. In between were clumps of introduced buffel as well as plentiful native desert grasses. Next, Aguirre walked a few yards onto a neighbor's ranch and pointed to the hard, bare soil with no grasses between plants and no corrugated look.
"We're creating a rich soil here," says Aguirre, co-owner with his wife, Martha Darancou Aguirre, of the 26,000-acre La Inmaculada Ranch in Sonora, Mexico. A corrugated look means cattle and other animals have disturbed the soil, which aids grass and other native plant growth by letting seeds, water, and nutrients penetrate the desert ground. "A healthy plant community requires healthy soils," he adds. "We are committed to improving our soils for wildlife as well as cattle."
The Aguirres symbolize a small but growing number of ranchers and other landowners in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico and the United States who are managing their land in a more environmentally friendly way. As a group, they aim to conserve and restore natural landscapes and native plants. To do so, they have abandoned some traditional and reworked some new ways of ranching in the desert, developed products made from natural sources, and improved the environment for wildlife and cattle.
Along the way, the Aguirres and others have won praise from Mexican and U.S. conservationists. "They have created something that other ranchers in Sonora can look at and follow," says Joaquin Murrieta Saldivar, associate director of Sonoran Desert programs at the Sonoran Institute in Tucson. "More than 80 percent of the land [in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico] is in private hands. If conservation is going to work, it will have to happen on private lands."
"They're using their love of the land to restore its traditional value," says Susan Anderson of the Aguirres and others engaged in conservation on privately owned lands. "Everyone said it can't be done," adds Anderson, director of the Nature Conservancy's northwest Mexico program. "We're seeing it happen on their ranches. They're doing it on their own. That's exciting."
The Aguirres inherited La Inmaculada from Ivan's father, Mario, in 1980. In debt, Ivan and Martha left the ranch to finish school and earn money, returning to it part time in 1984 but not fully until 1989. By then, overgrazing, rising fuel prices to run water pumps, and a realization of the limits of ranching where rainfall averages only twelve inches a year--as well as a growing awareness of the value of nature--led them to reevaluate how to ranch the place.
What the Aguirres inherited was a ranch devoid of most vegetation except buffel grass, an exotic species from Africa. Like many other Sonoran ranchers, Mario Aguirre had followed government advice in the 1970s. He rented two bulldozers, strung metal chains between them, and drove them through his fields, destroying virtually every living thing in their path. Pictures of La Inmaculada from that period show a moonlike vista with no saguaros, senitas, mesquites, or other desert flora.
"Traditional ranching diminished our natural resources," Ivan says today. "We needed to develop a new paradigm that looks at ranching holistically. We needed a healthy environment to have a healthy plant community and healthy livestock. We're managing for diversity. We want to be ecologically as well as economically sustainable. That is our challenge."
The Aguirres' new paradigm meant subdividing the ranch into seventy-eight fenced paddocks and continuously moving cattle in and out of each every few days to ensure that no part of the land is overgrazed or overrested. That also prevents cattle from trampling every new …