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Allies, not enemies: Big ND ranch works with outdoor groups

Cattle rancher Byron Richards surveys one of his herds on his 23,000 acre Beach, N.D. ranch on Tuesday, August 29, 2017. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service1 / 13
Signs indicate land belonging to Byron and Kathy Richards as also being part of the Private Land Open To Sportsmen (PLOTS) program near Beach, N.D. on Tuesday, August 29, 2017. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service2 / 13
The Beaver Creek lazily flows through Byron Richards' Beach, N.D. cattle ranch on Tuesday, August 29, 2017. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service3 / 13
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Signs and barbed wire demarcate land belonging to Byron and Kathy Richards near Beach, N.D. on Tuesday, August 29, 2017. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service5 / 13
A sign at the entrance to Byron and Kathy Richards' land near Beach, N.D. shows the boundaries of the property, which is part of the PLOTS (Private Land Open To Sportsmen) program. Photo taken Tuesday, August 29, 2017. Nick Nelson / Agweek6 / 13
Acres of rolling hills near Beach, N.D. are part of privately-owned land open to hunters as part of the PLOTS (Private Land Open To Sportsmen) program. Photo taken Tuesday, August 29, 2017. Nick Nelson / Agweek7 / 13
Fences mark the property lines of Byron and Kathy Richards near Beach, N.D. on Tuesday, August 29, 2017. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service8 / 13
Byron and Kathy Richards of Beach, N.D. have donated thousands of acres to the PLOTS (Private Land Open To Sportsmen) program. Photo taken Tuesday, August 29, 2017. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service9 / 13
The evening sun sets on the sprawling acreage of Beach, N.D. cattle rancher Byron Richards on Tuesday, August 29, 2017. Nick Nelson / Agweek10 / 13
Rancher Byron Richards stands at the top of a butte on his Beach, N.D. property on Tuesday, August 29, 2017. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service11 / 13
Beach, N.D. rancher Byron Richards checks on a water tank his cattle drink from during a tour of his 23,000 acre property on Tuesday, August 29, 2017. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service12 / 13
Byron Richards drives across the sprawling acreage of his ranch near Beach, N.D. on Tuesday, August 29, 2017. Richards and his wife, Kathy, are part of the PLOTS (Private Land Open To Sportsmen) program in conjunction with the N.D. Game and Fish department which allows hunters, birdwatchers and others access to private land after receiving permission from owners. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service13 / 13

BEACH, N.D. — Some farmers and ranchers view hunters, other outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife groups as enemies. Not Byron Richard. The Beach, N.D., rancher considers them potential allies.

"We have a lot in common. When we can find ways to work together, we all win," he says of cooperation between agricultural landowners and outdoor/wildlife groups.

Richard has put the sentiment into practice on his sprawling Richard Angus Ranch north of Beach. He and his wife, Kathy, bought the roughly 22,000-acre Beaver Creek Ranch in 2015, hoping to make it both a working ranch and a wildlife legacy that future generations could enjoy.

The Beaver Creek, surrounded by buttes, bluffs and open range, winds through the bottom of the ranch, which is home to mule deer, whitetail deer, elk, birds, beaver and prairie dogs. The working ranch also has 800 cattle.

"What we're really trying to do here is having the economics of the ranching operation, and also the benefit of the wildlife — and to share it with the public," Byron Richard said.

After buying it, the Richards enrolled their renamed Richard Angus Ranch in Private Lands Open to Sportsmen, or PLOTS. In the longstanding program, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department works with private landowners to enhance habitat development and hunting access. More information is available here: https://gf.nd.gov/plots/guide.

"It's a fantastic opportunity for sportsmen. It's drawn a lot of praise from everyone I've talked with who's hunted out there," Nate Harling, private lands field operations coordinator for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department said of the Richard ranch project. "Just about every kind of wildlife found in North Dakota is on this ranch, and hunters have really made good use of it."

Hunting and wildlife groups often lament what they see as inadequate public access to privately owned farmland. So some of the groups have made concerted efforts to work with ag landowners across Agweek country.

The Beaver Creek project is an unusually big example. Also involved in it are the Mule Deer Foundation, Pheasants Forever, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and National Wild Turkey Foundation.

"This is only possible because of the partner contributions," Harling said.

Richard signed a 10-year deal in which he received PLOTS payments and other wildlife contributions totaling $664,000, as well as volunteer labor on the ranch from outdoor enthusiasts. In return, hunters and other fans of the outdoors have access to the land.

Richard is a longtime Belfield, N.D., farmer and rancher. But his children, a son and daughter, have a passion for cattle. So, with the next generation in mind, Byron and Kathy decided to focus primarily on cattle and bought the Beaver Creek Ranch.

But cattle didn't come with the ranch. To buy cattle and to finance necessary improvements to the ranch would require additional funding, Byron Richard knew.

"This (the partnership with wildlife groups) was the opportunity to get that," he said.

Marshall Johnson, North Dakota and South Dakota director for the Mule Deer Foundation, said his organization was excited to get involved.

"It was a home-run pitch from Byron," Johnson said of the project, the largest his organization has been involved with.

The opportunity to enhance elk habitat and create more public access was too good to pass up, said Shawn Kelley, regional director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. It's the largest such project in which his organization has been involved in North Dakota.

Both organizations are interested in working with other ag landowners in areas where mule deer and elk are established, Johnson and Kelley said.

Payments from wildlife groups can supplement what farmers and ranchers earn from their crops and livestock, Kelley said.

The additional income can be especially important for ag landowners looking to upgrade or improve their property, Richard said.

Most other Midwest states offer similar projects in which state wildlife/fishing/outdoor agencies work with landowners to enhance public hunting access on private land, Harling said.

Improved ranch

Richard visited with Agweek while he drove through parts of the ranch on a hot, late-summer afternoon. An indication of how big it is: Just one of its multiple pastures consists of about 6,000 acres.

Apart from a few prairie dogs, no wildlife was visible on the day of Agweek's visit. Animals, other than the cows, were deep in ravines, sheltered by trees and brush from the unseasonably warm sun.

As he drove, Richard pointed to improvements, many of them accomplished with volunteer labor. The long list includes cleaning up the property, tearing out old fence and and putting in new fence and water systems.

New wells and pipelines are particularly important. In the past, before the Richards bought the ranch, cattle often overgrazed land along the creek, where they had quick, easy access to water. Pasture further from the creek had poor access to water, discouraging cattle from grazing there.

Now, cattle can drink piped-in water at tanks throughout the ranch. That helps to restore the once-overgrazed areas and make better use of what had been undergrazed areas.

"All these improvements — we just couldn't have done it ourselves," Richard said.

Volunteers, many of them from urban areas, relish the chance to get out in the country and work on the ranch, Johnson and Kelley said.

They also say, and Richard agrees, that the volunteers gain better understanding of the challenges faced by ranchers.

A small percentage

A common concern among ag landowners is that their property might be damaged if they allow hunters or other outdoor enthusiasts on it.

Richard said problems on his property have been minimal.

"It's only a small percentage (of visitors), 2 or 3 percent, that have been an issue. Most of them have been great to work with," he said.

Johnson and Kelley say their organizations continually educate their members about the importance of treating land respectfully. They also point to self-policing among hunters, the vast majority of whom are responsible, to prevent damage to landowners' property.

People with guns, but not licenses, sometimes are responsible for much of the damage to ag property, and legitimate hunters shouldn't be blamed when that happens, Harling said.

"Illegal activity might not be done by a hunter. Just because they have a gun doesn't mean they're a hunter," he said. "Gun ownership goes behind hunters."

The 10-year agreement is off to strong start, and Byron Richard is confident that will continue. He's optimistic his children will decide to renew it after it expires, he said.

In the meantime, "I really encourage people in agriculture to consider these kind of partnerships as a way to bring more income into their operation," Richard said. "It can be a win for farmers and ranchers, and it can be a win for people who enjoy wildlife and the outdoors."

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