South Dakota man turns ranch into wildlife haven
FORT PIERRE, S.D. — John Moisan is a hunter.
That fact becomes apparent when he looks out at the 640 acres of land he owns in Tripp County a few dozen miles south of Presho. Moisan sees the cuts and draws, the cattails and trees not as impediments to farming and cattle but as goldmines for pheasants, grouse and deer. Driving around his property in the back of a friend’s pickup, he points to the grass he’s planted as his proudest achievement, not the rows of sorghum that also thrive on his land.
Hunched over in an elevated box blind, surrounded by the early September sights, sounds and smells of a central South Dakota grassland, he pointed out where a friend killed a giant whitetail buck a year or two before. That hunter had been sitting in the same blind Moisan was in. That was beside the point, though, he said. The fact is, that buck wouldn’t have been anywhere near the blind 15 years ago.
Back then, just about every square inch of the property had been covered in wheat stubble. From the soggiest draw to the windiest hill top, one plant had dominated the landscape. From time to time, a covey of prairie grouse could fly in to feed on the waste grain. A few mule deer also could be seen wandering through on occasion. But not much actually lived on the property, Moisan said.
When he first saw the property back in 2002, an eagle was giving the place a once over, too. Moisan took that as inspiration to buy the place and turn it into something special – a place to harbor and grow wild things. Having a place where he could hunt with his five children was one of the motivations that spurred his purchase of what he would come to call Eagle View Ranch.
“This is my way of giving back to nature,” Moisan told the Capital Journal .
The soil bank era
Moisan grew up back in the soil bank days of the late 50s and early 60s, when pheasants were like locusts in their multitudes. Moisan lived with his mother and her parents on a small piece of ground near Watertown. His grandpa, an old market hunter who’d fought in World War I and spent World War II guiding military brass from the local air base on pheasant hunts, took him hunting when there was time.
Those were good days to be a budding hunter. Between 1958 and 1963, South Dakota’s pheasant population never fell below 7.5 million. Hunters annually took home between 2.2 and 3.2 million birds. Hunter success has never again reached such heights. So it is safe to say the young Moisan got plenty of hunting in before the soil bank era ended and the number of pheasants in South Dakota plunged from 10 million in 1963 to 5 million in 1964.
Moisan helped his grandparents and, in addition to developing his love for wildlife, he forged a deep connection to the land. He graduated high school and went on to college at the University of South Dakota where he joined the ROTC.
This was the early 1970s and the Vietnam War was still raging. Moisan became an artillery officer and served for a few years.
After his military career, Moisan returned to South Dakota and started working on a master’s degree. He spent a summer managing grasslands with the Corps of Engineers and learned a deeper respect for the land. His time working on the grassland also helped strengthen his desire to own some land.
Eventually, Moisan went to work for the State of South Dakota and moved to the Pierre area. He spent 30 years in state government. During that time, he raised five kids, trained many hunting dogs and developed many relationships with landowners all over the state who let his family and him hunt.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, commercial pheasant hunting was becoming bigger business and finding private land to hunt was becoming harder and harder for Moisan to do. In 2002, his family came into some money.
Where it all started
The early 2000s were a transitional time in South Dakota agriculture. Corn was in the early stages of taking off as a major cash crop. Land values had yet to skyrocket in response to the ethanol boom and the rise in the price of corn that soon followed. Farm land was still reasonably affordable
At about that time, 640 acres of contiguous land in Tripp County came on the market. Nearly every square inch of the property was planted to wheat. There was just one small pasture to the northeast and it had routinely been grazed to the dirt.
“I saw it as a fixer-upper farm,” Moisan said.
It was a tremendous opportunity, Moisan thought. He and a business partner offered $400 per acre and eventually paid $412.40. Today, the price per acre for farm ground can run up to $2,500. It didn’t take long for Moisan to be confronted by just how tough restoring the newly christened Eagle View Ranch would be.
For more than 100 years, the family that owned the land had abused it. Wheat was about the only thing they’d grown there. Just about everywhere a plow could hit had been tilled. This included the tops of hills and the bottoms draws, places prone to erosion and flooding.
After a century of tillage and erosion from wind and rain, there wasn’t much more than a few inches of topsoil left on most of the farm. Gravel was exposed on the tops of hills.
There were old oil filters, fan belts and all sorts of broken tractor parts sprinkled liberally across the landscape. Crumbling barns and other buildings filled what had been a farmyard and there was very little water anywhere on the farm. There wasn’t much in the way of wildlife, either.
“It was a hell of a mess,” Moisan said.
He and his partner hadn’t had nearly enough money to buy the place outright. There was a mortgage to pay and a hefty property tax bill to consider as well, Moisan said. So he needed a renter to produce a crop to help pay the mortgage and taxes. The guy he found wasn’t that great a farmer and largely kept doing what the previous owners had done.
“I lost $30,000 one year,” Moisan said.
In 2004, Moisan turned to the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to take land out of production and turn it into wildlife habitat, especially when the land’s soil is highly erodible. He learned about a program contained in the program called CP38, which is better known as State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement or SAFE. The idea is to put the least-productive portions of farm fields to better use as wildlife habitat.
Moisan heard about the program at a Pheasants Forever banquet in Pierre. The Farm Service Agency office in Tripp County, though, wasn’t familiar with it. Still they worked with Moisan to enroll 130 acres into the program.
He planted 42 acres of trees, totaling about 66,000 individual plants. The rest of that first 130 acres was planted to grass. Moisan’s renter was not happy about the change. Farming around the trees was going to make things a bit more difficult and the renter didn’t much care if the newly planted CRP acres hadn’t actually been producing a profitable crop.
Moisan was forced to part ways with that first renter after just a few years.
Creating a wildlife haven
Moisan’s goal for Eagle View Ranch was to create a haven for wildlife, while at the same time making enough money to break even on the property financially. The plan revolved planting 30 percent of the property to native grasses and enrolling it into CRP, keeping 30 percent of the property as farm ground and another 30 percent would be pasture land. The remaining acres would be used for stock dams, drainage basins and a few more manicured acres around the small mobile home and few remaining barns that made up the farmyard.
Moisan said he based his plan on a master’s degree thesis written by Emmett Keyser. The thesis focused on pheasant habitat requirements. Keyser’s thesis found that a mix of about one-third crop, one-third undisturbed grass and one-third disturbed grass was ideal for pheasant production.
Making his plan a reality was a tall order. One that would require an experienced, forward-thinking farmer and a thorough understanding of federal, state and privately funded conservation programs.
Understanding the conservation programs came only after countless hours of study and practice. What Moisan discovered was that the people who manage federal conservation programs at the country level often interpret the programs differently from each other. The end result is that the USDA officers in Tripp County will enforce different rules than their counterparts in Hughes County even if they’re working with the same program.
A big part of navigating federal conservation programs, Moisan discovered, was knowing more about what was available than those at his local FSA and Natural Resources Conservation Service offices.
“One thing about NRCS offices in the area is that they don’t actively tell people about the programs available to them,” Moisan said.
Still, he was able to get 30 percent of his land enrolled into CRP. Moisan also was able to get a new dam built with the help of a cost share between the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and himself.
The work isn’t over once the land is enrolled either, Moison said. He spends a lot of time working with the FSA and NRCS offices in Tripp County to figure out what he can and can’t do to improve wildlife habitat on his property.
“The biggest hurdle I’ve seen was what the NRCS and what the FSA told me I could plant was really far apart,” Moisan said.
Last summer, for example, Moisan devised a plan to mow some of his CRP in irregular strips. The idea was to confound pheasant nest predators such as foxes, skunks and coyotes, while at the same time allowing his renter to take some much needed hay and meeting management goals included in the CRP contract. Moisan’s plan wasn’t accepted because the contract requires that mowing take place in blocks of no less than 10 acres. So, he had to go back to the drawing board.
Though Moisan was able to enroll the acres he needed into CRP, the crop portion of Eagle View Ranch’s operations proved harder to turn profitable. In 2010, when another renter parted ways with Moisan, the landowner was forced to find another farmer, this time he hoped to find someone who shared his vision. Or at least one that understood it.
The man Moisan needed turned out to be Mick Rowe. Rowe farmed over 1,000 acres in and around Tripp County and had embraced the practice of no-till farming. The idea behind no-till farming is to leave plenty of crop residue in the ground after harvesting. That leaves more organic matter in the ground and helps moisture make its way into the ground. Leaving the roots and stems in the dirt also has the important effect of reducing soil erosion.
Rowe said he picked the idea up from Dwayne Beck, who runs the Dakota Lakes Research Farm south of Pierre. Beck has been at the forefront of a revolution of sorts in dry land farming. Farmers from Kansas to Canada have implemented no-till and other farming practices Beck has pioneered.
It can take a few years but, eventually, no-till farming and a good crop rotation plan leads to healthier soil that in turn leads to better yields, with reduced need for such things as fertilizer. The increased moisture retention also helps crops such as corn and sorghum weather central South Dakota’s often dry climate. Rowe said it took him six years to break even on Moisan’s land.
“There’s just no topsoil,” Rowe said. “It’s all been eroded away.”
Rowe also has embraced modern technology. He’s started using satellite imagery to help him plant more efficiently in the spring and to help identify where and how to use chemicals, which ends up reducing the amount needed and, by extension, the cost of the chemicals. That translates into more money in his pocket and Moisan’s pocket.
That’s critical, Moisan said, because even with land enrolled in the CRP program, there’s no way he could afford to keep his ranch without profitable farm ground.
“The way I’ve got it setup now, the land pays for itself,” Moisan said.
Precision doesn’t come without some sacrifice, though. Rowe said he’s invested many thousands of dollars in both hardware and software.
It didn’t take long after Moisan started planting trees and grass for wildlife to respond. When his land was a desert of wheat stubble most of the year, the only birds he saw there were some grouse that commuted in for dinner in the afternoon. They weren’t really huntable in that situation.
The pheasant factor
After planting trees and grass on his marginal cropland, it took about three years before Moisan started seeing a difference in the number of pheasants on his land. By 2008, Moisan said, his sons and friends were able to harvest hundreds of birds in a season.
“The pheasant and grouse crop just exploded,” Moisan said.
He started letting people who asked hunt on Eagle View Ranch provided they cleaned up after themselves. Moisan said if people who asked to hunt had kids and dogs with them they’d be even more likely to get permission to hunt.
“You could sit on the deck, have breakfast and 60 to 70 pheasants would walk across the yard,” Moisan said of the pheasant population on his property.
For four years, the hunting was incredible, Moisan said. Then, in 2012, the pheasant population tanked. Only a few birds were killed on Eagle View Ranch that year. In 2013, Moisan said he stopped hunting the property.
The birds still haven’t come back, he said, even though the habitat on his property is some of the best around.
“I just don’t understand that,” Moisan said. “If the wildlife comes back, I’ve got a five-star hotel with a sign out that says vacancy.”
Still, he’s proud of what he’s done with Eagle View Ranch.
“My goal is pretty much achieved,” Moisan said. “To be able to take a piece of dirt that had been abused for 100 years and turn it into something special, is priceless.”