Michigan farmer builds on agritourism offerings with game-bird preserve

Hunters can pursue game birds, including ruffed grouse, in guided "put-and-take" style outings.

CEDAR, Mich. — Area yak and alpaca farmer Chris Butz is expanding his agritourism offerings by opening the first game bird preserve in Leelanau County.

Hunters can pursue game birds such as ring-necked pheasants, ruffed grouse and American woodcock in guided “put-and-take” style outings, Butz told the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

They can also bring their gun dogs for some training using non-native birds such as chukars or the Tennessee red quail that are raised by Butz for training purposes.

“What we’re trying to build is a series of agritourism experiences that people can have,” Butz said. “We’re really trying to create for the hunter and dog a wild-bird experience.”

Butz received approval in February from the Michigan DNR to run a licensed game bird preserve on 120 acres of land he owns in Solon Township.

A conditional site plan for the preserve also was approved last year by Solon Township planners, and Butz is now waiting for approval of a commercial driveway variance from the Leelanau County Road Commission.

Butz is asking that he not have to upgrade the existing gravel driveway for the preserve, which will not be open to the public except by reservation, he said.

“We’re not a commercial use,” Butz said. “We’re still an agricultural use, so my position is that we don’t need to go to a commercial standard driveway … We’re talking about a couple guys in pickup trucks with hunting dogs.”

The Solon Township property, which is 176 acres in all, is bordered on the south and west by Hoxie Road. Only 120 acres is designated preserve.

Formerly the Tree of Life Ranch, the property was once used to raise alpaca. It is now used to house and raise yaks that will be moved to the Gills Pier site or sold for their meat.

For now the preserve is being called the Gills Pier Hunting and Shooting Preserve, though that name may change.

Hunting birds will be raised from chicks by Butz or purchased as adults. They’ll then be taken out and hidden under brush or in bushes.

“That allows us to walk away and they’ll be there for 30 minutes to an hour before the hunters come out,” Butz said.

Hunting groups can be up to six people who can bring their own dogs or use the ranch’s.

Butz is also the owner of Gills Pier Ranch north of Leland. He and his wife, Angie Butz, purchased the 52-acre Gills Pier Winery in 2015, turning it into a farm where they raise yaks and alpacas.

There also is a farm market where people can purchase low-fat yak meat and textiles made from the animals’ wooly hair.

They live in a newly-built home on the ranch with their five children who range in age from almost 2 to 17.

The preserve is under the wing of Gills Pier Outfitters, which also offers clay shooting, guided waterfowl hunting, fly fishing and light tackle excursions on Lake Michigan.

Originally from Indiana, Butz is an attorney who does not practice law in Michigan. He said when he began practicing law he was seeing the death of the family farm and that the next generation of farmers was being lost.

He grew up hunting on game bird preserves and said his goal is to show people that there is an alternative use for agricultural lands. He also wants to get people outdoors and teach young people to enjoy the outdoor lifestyle.

Butz said the bird-hunting/dog-training/yak business suits him better than his previous career in law.

“It fits me well because I’ve always been an outdoor person from a young age,” Butz said. “It really fits my core soul, how I’m wired, rather than sitting in an office.”

The gamebird preserve season runs from Aug. 15 through April 30, though Butz’s property is currently under 3 to 4 feet of snow.

“We’re hoping to be up and running after the snow moves,” he said.

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