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Ranchers and hunters help one another

Cattle, conservation and hunting are all intertwined on the Besler Ranch near Bison, S.D.

Wayne Besler and sons Brad and Chris and grandson Tanner operate a commercial cattle ranch that covers more than 16,400 acres and is one of the largest public walk-in hunting areas in the state.

Lifelong conservationists, the Beslers signed a contract with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department in 1995 to open the ranch to public hunting and fishing and to reduce their livestock population by about half to enhance their grassland for wildlife habitat.

In return, GF&P pays them an annual rent and helps them improve the grassland habitat. Money for the program comes from hunting licenses.

The Beslers have built or restored 17 stock dams; installed cross fences, pipelines and water tanks; created food plots covering 100 acres; and planted nearly 700 cottonwood trees with cost-share help from the USDA, GF&P and private wildlife groups.

Key Points

• Ranch benefits from GF&P’s open access contract.

• GF&P pays annual rent and helps improve grasslands.

• Cattle weaning weights have risen with increase in forage.

Wildlife responds

Wildlife has responded well to habitat and food-source improvements. Pheasants, grouse and partridge populations are high now. Waterfowl are plentiful. Grassland nesting birds, such as the meadow lark, are thriving. Deer and antelope are also plentiful.

The Beslers’ cattle have done better, too. Calf weaning weights have risen. The Beslers attribute part of the gain to increases in forage quality and quantity, and wider availability of fresh water.

Reducing stocking rates also has helped the Beslers maintain cow numbers through recent droughts without running short of grass. Being able to hay Conservation Reserve Program acres every third year helps, too, giving them plenty of winter hay.

500 hunters and fishers

More than 500 people usually visit the Besler ranch annually to hunt and fish. But the extra people on the land haven’t been a problem, Brad says, because access is walk-in only.

The Beslers don’t hunt themselves. “It’s hard for many to believe, but I’ve never shot a deer or antelope in my life,” says Wayne, 78. “I just enjoy them. I love to ride out and see them grazing in the pasture or spot a big buck jump out and bound across the prairie.”

But they welcome hunters.

“So many places have gone to fee hunting, making it tougher and tougher for fathers and sons to hunt,” Brad says. “It gives us a lot of satisfaction to see fathers and their sons and daughters enjoying the hunting on our land.”

“We like seeing people come out here and enjoy the wide open spaces,” Wayne adds, “We’ve made many friends over the years and gained a lot of branding help.”

Roti writes for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.

USDA announces Open Fields funding

USDA recently announced $50 million in funding for the Open Fields program in the 2008 Farm Bill. The program provides incentive payments for farmers and ranchers who allow public access to their land for hunting and fishing and other wildlife-dependent recreation. The program won’t likely get started until next year. States and tribal governments have to apply to USDA for grants through the program. The money will be used for rental payments to landowners who allow public access and for projects to improve wildlife habitat. — Lon Tonneson

Interested in enrolling?

The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department is interested is enrolling more ranches in western South Dakota in the open access program. Terms of the lease vary according to the number of acres involved. Contact Paul Coughlin, South Dakota GF&P, at 605-773-4194 for more information.

North Dakota has a similar program called Private Lands Open To Sportsmen. Contact Kevin Kading, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, at 701-328-6371 for details.

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CONSERVATION LEGACY: (left to right) Wayne, Brad, Tanner and Chris Besler stand above Rabbit Creek, which runs through their ranch. They have opened their 16,000-acre ranch to sportsmen under a special South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department habitat and wildlife enhancement and public access program.

This article published in the August, 2010 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.