Plans for a commercial solar power facility on the storied Chino Grande Ranch north of Prescott led the Arizona Game and Fish Commission Wednesday to cancel the pronghorn antelope hunt on the entire 19B Game Management Unit.
Ranch owners informed Game and Fish last week that they won't allow any hunting this fall on the nearly 50,000-acre ranch in the Big Chino Valley, so the commission members voted to cancel the entire 19B hunt and its 65 antelope tags.
This was the first time in the commission's history it canceled a hunt because of a public access closure, Commission Chair Robert Woodhouse said.
"This was a difficult decision made only after extensive staff input and a long discussion by the commission," Woodhouse said.
Arizona Senate Majority Whip Steve Pierce, a Prescott-area rancher, said he plans to try to facilitate more meetings between the state and ranch owners. He said he is concerned about continuing loss of public hunting access on private property in Arizona, although he understands that private property owners have the right to close off their land.
The Chino Grande Ranch contains prime pronghorn habitat, making up about 35 percent of the remaining available habitat in GMU 19B, said Brian Wakeling, Game and Fish game branch chief.
"The antelope hunts in 19B are some of the most coveted in the state," he said, with 4,780 applicants this year.
The elongated GMU extends all the way from Interstate 40 to Prescott, and the southern portion was rapidly converting into home sites until the recession slowed development. In an effort to figure out ways to mitigate development effects on pronghorn, Game and Fish has been studying pronghorn movement in the region with partners in recent years.
The Chino Grande Ranch is a checkerboard of private and state trust land sections, and Chino Grande LLC holds the lease on the 20,590 acres of state lands. The historic names of the Chino Grande Ranch are the CV Ranch and CF Ranch.
Various ambitious plans for the ranch have fallen to the wayside over the past decade.
Ranch Communities of America planned a huge subdivision on the CF/CV Ranch in 2002, but backed out in face of public opposition.
The City of Prescott then almost bought the ranch as a site for its municipal wells in the Big Chino aquifer, but ended up buying a much smaller neighboring ranch in 2004. Chino Grande LLC bought the CV/CF Ranch in 2006.
The Chino Grande owners originally notified Game and Fish in 2009 that it would prohibit hunting in 2010, but then delayed the closure.
The project now is closer to fruition, ranch co-owner Larry Geare said.
Although he would not discuss details about the project's size and development partners, he said the plan features photovoltaic panels that don't use a lot of water like solar thermal panels.
And with 77 square miles on the ranch, "The antelope will have plenty of room to roam," Geare said.
Although the owners have not yet applied for required county and state leases, they are moving ahead on ground work related to future electricity transmission lines, Geare said.
Any commercial solar project likely would need a conditional use permit, zoning map change and county general plan amendment, Yavapai County Development Services Director Steve Mauk said.
"There has been no formal application," he said.
The ranch owners plan to file that application in a few months, Geare said.
The ranch owners have applied to the State Land Department for a road right-of-way across state trust lands on the ranch, but haven't yet applied for a SLD lease to use trust lands for the commercial solar power project. Geare said they want to use both private and trust lands for the project.
Commercial solar power developers are shopping for sites throughout the Southwest, Mauk said.
"We've talked to so many people about proposed locations," he said. But so far, none have been located in Yavapai County.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management currently is studying where solar power would work best on BLM lands in Arizona.