San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area Overview
Riparian: sounds like ripped apart. Too often too true. What it means is an area where plants and animals thrive because of an availability of water, either at or near the soil surface. Riparian areas are the shores of lakes and reservoirs, the banks and floodplains of intermittent or year-round streams, rivers and springs. Wetlands—get it?
Forty miles of the upper San Pedro River flows through San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area—58,000 acres of public land in Cochise County, Arizona, between the Mexican border and St. David, Arizona. The area is a rare remnant of the desert riparian ecosystem, a tantalizing trace of the extensive network of similar riparian systems that once existed throughout the Southwest. The NCA offers great recreation opportunities. Birders will find that half the known breeding species in North America have been spotted at San Pedro. Besides birdwatching , popular activities include hiking , camping, wildlife viewing, photography, seasonal hunting, horseback riding, nature study, and environmental education. San Pedro is also a great place to explore archaeological sites of the prehistoric Clovis people and historic ruins from the days when the Spanish, Mexicans, and U.S. were moving into the area.
The Land's Story
Water. The San Pedro River enters Arizona from Sonora, Mexico, flows north between the Huachuca and Mule mountain ranges, and joins the Gila River 100 miles downstream near the town of Winkelman. The San Pedro's perennial flow, though sometimes a trickle, is a rare occurrence in the Southwest. In addition, a number of springs occur within the NCA. Water is the critical element in a riparian ecosystem. Without an adequate, continuous supply, the ecosystem would perish.
Vegetation. The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, known for its extensive riparian corridor, is a composite of several vegetation communities. Fremont cottonwood and Goodding willow dominate the riparian corridor. Lesser amounts of Arizona ash and walnut, netleaf hackberry, and soapberry occur as well. Chihuahuan desert-scrub, typified by thorny species such as tarbush, creosote and acacia, characterize the uplands bordering both sides of the river, while mesquite and sacaton grass dominate the bottomland adjacent to the riparian corridor.
Wildlife. Wildlife abounds in the San Pedro Riparian NCA because of the abundant food, water and cover within and surrounding the riparian zone. The NCA supports over 350 species of birds, more than 80 species of mammals, two native species and several introduced species of fish, and more than 40 species of amphibians and reptiles.
Mammals. Mammals are abundant throughout the area, although some are mostly nocturnal and thus rarely seen. Included in this group are many species of rodents, several bats, mountain lions, and bobcats. Other mammals, like the white-tailed deer, mule deer, javelina, desert cottontail, and black-tailed jackrabbit are commonly observed.
Reptiles and Amphibians. The combination of desert and riparian habitats within the NCA creates a favorable environment for large numbers of reptiles and amphibians. The most notable of these are the Mexican garter snake, Mojave green rattlesnake, and Gila monster. More common species include the western diamondback rattlesnake, desert grassland whiptail lizard, Sonoran box turtle, and Couch's spadefoot toad.
Fish. Historically, the San Pedro River contained 14 species of native fish. Today, these have been largely replaced by introduced species such as the common carp, yellow bullhead, and mosquitofish. Only the longfin dace and desert sucker remain from the original San Pedro populations.
Prehistoric/Historic Sites. The NCA contains over 250 recorded prehistoric and historic sites and is likely to contain many more.
Prehistoric Cultures. The Clovis Culture, named for a unique type of projectile called a Clovis point, were the first known human occupants in the upper San Pedro River Valley, dating back approximately 11,000 years (9000-6000 B.C.). Stone tools and weapons used by people to butcher large mammals, such as mammoths and bison, were found with the bones of their prey at the Lehner Mammoth Kill Site and the Murray Springs Clovis Site. Remains of other prehistoric cultures in the NCA include the Archaic people (6000 B.C.-A.D. 1) and Mogollon, Hohokam and northern Mexico components (A.D. 1-1500).
Historic Cultures. These cultures have been divided into the following three major historic periods:
Spanish Period: Native American cultures encountered during the Spanish exploration and occupation of the Southwest (1539-1820) were Sobaipuri (part of the Upper Piman, 1430-1769) and Apache (1600-1886). Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, a general of the Spanish Army, led an expedition through the San Pedro Valley in 1540 in search of Cibola, the Seven Cities of Gold. A Jesuit, Fray Marcos de Niza, possibly the first European to see the Southwest, may have followed a similar route a year earlier.
Another Jesuit, Eusebio Francisco Kino, traveled widely in northern Sonora, Mexico, and what is now the southwestern United States between 1680-1711, establishing many vistas and missions. The Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate was established by Spanish troops in 1775 or 1776. (fortified settlement). It was never completed and was abandoned by 1780 due to continuous Apache raids, which took the lives of more than 80 Spaniards, including two commandants.
Mexican Period: Upon declaring independence from Spain in 1821, Mexicans moved into the upper San Pedro Valley to homestead and take over the large established Spanish cattle ranches. However, as with the Spanish occupation, Apache raids kept the Mexican settlers from prospering. As a result, over 60,000 cattle were roaming wild in the valley by 1851. The Mexican period ended when the area became a United States territory through the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. Many Mexican families remained in the area.
U.S. Period: Anglo settlers from the east moved into the area in the 1850's, reestablishing cattle ranching and farming. This period also saw the rise and fall of road and railroad systems and mining towns. Silver was discovered near Tombstone in 1877, and the valley boomed for over 10 years until the mines flooded, around 1887. The ruins of some mining towns, such as Contention City, Fairbank, Emery City, Millville and Charleston, remain today. Most Apache raiding ended in 1886 with the surrender of Geronimo and his followers. By the turn of the century, large-scale, corporate financed cattle ranching and farming became the norm, a trend that persisted until BLM acquisition in 1986.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication