As you start down into the valley of the Klondyke-Aravipa Canyon area in southeastern Arizona, you have the feeling of entering the last frontier in Arizona. The harsh rocky Santa Teresa Mountains rise to the north and the dark, rugged Galiuro Mountains loom to the south. This prickly-pear desert of Graham County, Arizona, covered with mesquite thickets, rattlesnakes, and surrounded by rough, rocky mountains, is where Richard and Karen Holcomb run their 200 head commercial cow/calf herd on 20,000 acres of private land and state land leases. These adventurous people moved to the Arizona desert country from northeastern Nevada in 1998 to buy a desert cow outfit and to hunt mountain lions with their hounds.
Brush and sticks hung high in forks of Sycamore trees along Aravipa Canyon Creek as we drove into the Squaw Creek ranch headquarters where we were greeted by Richard and Karen, the ranch owners. We mentioned the sticks in the trees to Richard and he said, “We had over 18 inches of summer monsoon rains in two days in 2006. The floodwater crested at 14 feet in Aravipa Creek across the county road from our ranch headquarters. The flood wiped out roads, telephones, water lines, fences, and drowned some cattle. We were stranded for several days. If we don’t get summer monsoon moisture, which can come with a vengeance, we are dependent on winter rains. Sometimes we don’t get them either. In 2011 summer and winter were both extremely dry. We have been in a drought in this country ever since we moved here. We have survived here for 13 years but Mother Nature can be brutal at times. Welcome to the Holcomb’s OV Brand, Squaw Creek Ranch, where life is never dull. This is a land of extremes.”
The Aravipa Canyon area is rich in Arizona history. Salado Indians once lived and hunted here. Campsites of these Indians and their cliff dwellings and pottery pieces can still be found. In February 1918, it was also the site of the biggest shoot-out in Arizona history which some say was much bigger than the Earp Brothers and Clanton’s famed “Shoot-out at the O.K. Corral” in Tombstone. Karen Holcomb told the story, “Old Man Powers had a cabin in Rattlesnake Canyon, near his mine, deep in the Galiuro Mountains south of our ranch. The lawmen from Safford rode to his cabin to serve papers on one of his boys who had been drafted into the army and had not reported for duty. Old Man Powers said his boy was not going to the Army. Pistols and rifles were drawn and the shooting began. When the gunfire ended, three lawmen were dead, Old Man Powers was dead, and three men were wounded. Two of the Powers boys were sentenced to over 40 years each in the state prison in Florence, Arizona for their part in the shootout. The Powers cabin, full of bullet holes, is still standing today. All of the Powers family is buried in the Klondyke cemetery near our ranch.”
The town site of Klondyke, several miles down Aravipa Creek from the Holcomb ranch, was settled in 1900 after lead and silver ore was found in the surrounding hills. At its peak, Klondyke was home to over 500 people. The ore played out, the Klondyke store and post office closed, and most of the miners drifted away. Today, only a handful of hardy souls working for the Nature Conservancy and cattle ranchers remain in this remote Klondyke-Aravipa Creek desert valley. The mail only comes twice a week from Wilcox, which is over 50 miles away.
Carving out a living in this inhospitable country takes a special talent. This environment is not for amateurs. People who want to live here must be able to adapt to this harsh remote Arizona desert. The Holcombs have spent their lives honing their skills in ranching, outfitting, and following lion-hunting hounds on their mules and horses in some of the roughest country in the west.
Richard grew up near Springer, New Mexico. He punched cows and hunted lions throughout New Mexico and Arizona. He also spent several years working in Nevada as a professional U S Government mountain lion hunter removing livestock-killing mountain lions. Karen spent her early years on the Blue River along the New Mexico/Arizona line in rugged Northeastern Arizona. She learned about mountain lion habits, lion dogs and guiding paid clients from the Lee Brothers who were famous southwestern professional mountain lion and bear hunters. She also spent many years in Utah and Nevada as a professional outfitter and guide.
Mountain Lion Hunting
For the first 8 years they were at Squaw Creek Ranch, the Holcombs took out paid clients on guided mountain lion hunts to help pay the bills for the ranch. Finally they just got too busy with the cow work to take paid hunters. Today they hunt mountain lions for themselves and to help neighboring ranchers when the ranches experience mountain lion depredation on their range calves. At times, mountain lions can be very destructive by killing calves. As soon as a mountain lion kill is found on domestic livestock, Richard and Karen will be on the lion’s trail with their lion hounds.
There are very few men and women alive today that understand mountain lions’ ways like the Holcombs do. To be successful in trailing and treeing mountain lions on “dry ground” takes a special talent and perseverance to be able to go back out day after day, trailing after hounds in some of the roughest country in western America and be successful in treeing a lion. Richard has been hunting mountain lions with his trained hounds for over 40 years and his wife Karen is a long-time professional in the lion hunting business. The Holcombs have 12 mountain lion dogs in their dog pack. They usually hunt six dogs at a time. Locator collars are placed around the hounds’ necks to keep track of the dogs when they are trailing a lion. The dogs that they use have come from lines of dogs that Richard has bred and trained for over 40 years. Richard has bought very few lion dogs. His breeding line of dogs goes back to his great “dry-ground” dogs that have trailed and treed countless mountain lions all over Nevada and the southwest. Richard said, “Most any old hound dog will trail a mountain lion track in the snow, but ‘dry-ground’ lion hunting takes a dog with a special talent and nose.”
Harley Shaw, a noted author and mountain lion expert formerly with the Arizona State Game and Fish and a friend of the Holcombs once said, “Those who have hunted with trained mountain lion dogs tend to agree that this type of hunt is the king of sports on our continent. Probably no sport requires more investment of time and money than hunting mountain lions with hounds on bare ground. Hounds, like all dogs, are predators. They may react to the warm scent of any animal, but they instinctively follow things that smell like food. The trick in training mountain lion hounds lies in getting them to trail only the species that you want to catch - mountain lions. This is something that the average dog training person never gets done. Richard and Karen Holcomb have taken the training of ‘dry-ground’ lion hounds and mountain lion hunting to a higher level.”
Horses and Mules:
Richard says, “We use both horses and mules for our cow work. Mules are quiet–minded, surefooted and less likely to fall and get you hurt. We liked to use mules for our clients to ride when we took paying lion hunters because in this rugged desert mountain terrain, some horses might get our clients in trouble. We depended on the mules to take care of them and they did. A good riding mule that can handle this rough country is hard to find. When you do find one, they are going to cost lots of money.
“Our ranch horses come from a variety of places. We use all geldings on our ranch. We don’t breed horses. We buy them. We don’t care if a horse has papers. The kind of horse we need has to be able to handle rough country, watch a cow, hold a rope, travel in the rocks and prickly pear cactus, be gentle, and still get the job done. One cow horse Karen uses now was given to her by some people who couldn’t keep it anymore.
“When we get a new horse, we turn it loose in our horse and mule pasture that is full of rocks, prickly pear cactus, and snakes so they can learn to negotiate the terrain on their own without pressure. Sometimes it takes a year or more for the horses and mules to really figure out how to travel this country and learn to find water. The young horse I am riding now came from a ranch in Northern New Mexico. We bought him as two-year old and we turned him out in the rocky horse pasture for a year before we used him in ranch work.
When we use the horses or mules while lion hunting, many times they have to be able to trail after the hunting hounds in extremely rough country. The country is often more difficult than where the cattle are located. Horses and mules need to be hobble broke because many times they are left alone while we follow the lion dogs on foot. The terrain can be so tough that you are unable to ride to the spot where the lion is treed by the hounds.
Since arriving in this southeastern Arizona desert country, Richard and Karen set out to put together a commercial cow/calf herd made up from cows and bulls that were native to this area. Richard said, “To make it in the livestock business in this tough old desert country we use mostly native cattle that know how to make a living in a country with sparse feed, are able to browse when the grass and weeds run out and can travel long distances to water. We started with Brangus and Angus bulls and crossbred cows with some ear. In recent years, we have gone to more all black-hided cattle with little or no ear. These black cattle market much better and we have tried to keep pace with the current trends that require black cattle. We keep back some of our heifers for replacements and buy young bulls or keep some of our young ranch-raised bulls that are native to this country. These native cattle tend to be in short supply and there is a strong demand for replacement heifers, for what I call ‘hard-footed’ cattle, that come from this tough old country.”
Richard went on to explain the water pipeline projects for their cattle; “Desert cattle require a lot of water during the hot summer months. Their water intake doubles when temperatures increase from 50 degrees to 95 degrees. Cows and Bulls need 15 to 20 gallons of water per day. Calves need from 8 to 10 gallons. Plenty of water for livestock and wildlife is critical in this country. We obtained cost-sharing funding help for stock water and wildlife developments from the Arizona State Fish and Game and the Federal Natural Resources Conversation Service. We pump water from deep wells with propane or solar powered pumps and store it in large steel storage tanks. We have run miles of water pipelines from these wells to areas that had good feed but no water. This program has been a great benefit to our cattle program and also provides water for wildlife in these previously dry areas. In exchange for waterline help from Arizona State Fish and Game, we opened up areas for hunter access on our ranch that were formerly not available to Arizona hunters. This is a win-win situation for all parties involved.
“We also purchased a farm several miles up Aravipa Creek from our ranch. There we installed a pivot water sprinkler system and grow grain crops such as barley and oats. We built a set of sorting pens with a weight scale so that we can sort and weigh our cattle when they are getting ready for market. We run some of our calves over as yearlings and sell mostly on the video auction. We also market cattle on a private treaty with other cattlemen looking for cattle. This farm set-up has allowed us to move our market calves onto good feed when the outside country dries up. We also feed supplement block when the feed runs short. We do feed some hay to our calves, mules, and horses, but to have hay delivered to our ranch in 2012, it costs $350 to $400 per ton. The long distances that we go when we market our cattle dictates that we need to have a uniform weight of calves for sale and a full load for the cow trucks when they are called to haul our livestock. The cattle that we do not sell on the video auction will be sold by private treaty here at the ranch or we haul a trailer load to Wilcox to the livestock auction. The pens, scale, and good feed at the farm have provided us a way to make this long haul distance deal work. We have been able to survive and are making a living with our cattle.”
Handling Cattle and Cow Dogs:
Handling cattle in this rugged country takes a special livestock talent. Richard explained, “To handle cattle in this rough and brushy country, we ride on our cattle often and handle them in quiet way so that they do not get ‘spoiled’ and want to run off when they see us horseback. If this type of crossbred desert cattle are ‘cowboyed’ or ‘dogged’ too much, they become almost impossible to gather and we do not want that to happen. We use cow dogs for moving and gathering cattle from the mesquite thickets. Good cow dogs are very important. We have two or three at any given time, but we don’t raise them ourselves. We buy well-bred pups from breeders that have dogs that go back to Trayer Hangin’ Tree Dogs and then we train them.
Karen and I do most of the riding ourselves. We hire very little day work help. When we gather and brand, our neighbors and friends come help us. Riding on our cattle is also a good way to find out if the mountain lions and coyotes are working on our range calves. There is no substitute for being out there every day checking water wells, the feed conditions, and the livestock. That is what we try to do.”
Richard says, “I always wanted a place of my own where I did not have to load my mule and dogs in a horse trailer and could ride out from the ranch to go mountain lion hunting. I have found that place on our Squaw Creek Ranch.”
Post Script: regrettably, Karen Holcomb passed away in 2013.