"The days of the cowboy moving his herd downriver are about over," said Kieron Suckling of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson. "It's going to be tough on ranchers, and I am well aware that some of them may not make it. But it is the best thing for the ecosystem.
"The idea is that as logging and ranching decline in these areas, you can begin restoring endangered species and reintroducing the grizzly bears, wolves and jaguars that used to be here," Suckling said.
Led by his group and Forest Guardians in Santa Fe, environmentalists have filed at least 70 lawsuits in this area during the last few years that invoke the Endangered Species Act on behalf of the loach minnow, another fish called the spikedace and a tiny, melodic bird, the southwestern willow flycatcher. The activists have won many of the lawsuits, forcing the U.S. Forest Service to fence out thousands of cattle from rivers and streams in southern Arizona and New Mexico to protect the imperiled species.
In the successful lawsuits, the environmentalists argued that the agency for years had neglected its legal responsibilities to protect the land and wildlife.
For the ranchers, losing access to the only naturally occurring water in the region has cut their herds as much as 80%, a figure cited by both environmentalists and the New Mexico Cattle Growers Assn.
The West's changing economy exerts the other great force squeezing ranchers out here. Barely 100 families are scattered through the Malpais region, most of them on small cattle ranches like McDonald's. They didn't have telephone service until the 1980s, and many still generate their own electricity.
Spread across a million acres of coarse bunch grass, thorny underbrush and black volcanic stubble, the Malpais--meaning badlands--encompasses the San Bernardino Valley and the Peloncillo Mountains where the borders of Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico meet.
But even here, 100 miles southeast of Tucson, as subdivisions sprout on the ruins of old homesteads, the forces reshaping the West are clearly visible and threaten to engulf ranchers and environmentalists alike.
Encroaching development cuts off wildlife corridors and brings smog, polluted runoff and weekend crowds. There is often pressure to build roads and resorts, and to divert water to growing communities. Even loose dogs take a toll.
Those pressures will mount as land prices rise--as they have in rural southwest New Mexico, where an acre valued at $2,000 in the 1980s is worth $15,000 or more today.
'Environmentalists Are Our Enemies'
A century ago, there were close to 20 million cattle scattered across the vast public rangelands of the American West from Canada to Mexico. Today, the number is closer to 2 million.
Historically, most Western stockmen grazed their herds on public lands, but now only 25,000 such ranchers are left, 25% fewer than a decade ago. The drop reflects casualties of drought, rising taxes, low beef prices, population growth and laws such as the Endangered Species Act.
Those still in the livestock business insist, as ranchers always have, that self-interest compels them to take care of the land.
But there are countervailing pressures--debt, for example--that drive ranchers to abuse the land for the sake of near-term profit. A century of poisoning, trapping, polluting and overgrazing undercuts claims of sound stewardship.
Moreover, the grazing fees that ranchers pay for access to public lands have not been nearly enough to cover the cost of damage done by livestock, especially along Southwestern rivers where, environmentalists say, overgrazing has driven several species of fish and birds to the edge of extinction.
Raging against the forces of ecological reform, some ranchers describe what is happening to them as nothing short of a rural jihad.
"The environmentalists are our enemies as surely as the Nazis were the enemies of the Jews," said Hillsboro, N.M., rancher Jimmy Bassin, who added that the Forest Service has ordered him to reduce his cattle herd by 78%. "They want people like me off the land we love, and they don't care if it kills us."
Others seem less angry than resigned to an increasingly precarious fate.
"The culture we've been a part of is in jeopardy," said Sam Luce, who lives in semi-retirement with his wife and daughter on a small ranch along the Blue River in eastern Arizona.
A retired physician, Luce has been taking care of sick people and animals on remote ranches in the Southwest for 40 years.
On this summer day, he is in an especially gloomy mood, having just buried the family dog, which was killed on a nocturnal raid by a wolf--one of several reintroduced this year into the surrounding Apache National Forest.
"Maybe it's not worth continuing," Luce said. "There are certainly easier, more economical, easier ways to raise beef cattle.
"But something will be lost when people no longer have an intimate relationship with the land," he said, "when they don't raise and cook their food and build their own shelter."