Conservation programs provide tools for creating wildlife haven
– hunter’s heaven
With the help of the
NRCS, Stevens Ranch partners (from left) Tom Pfeifer, Don Schmauder, David
Stevens and Derek Stevens have created or enhanced hundreds of acres of
It’s hard to imagine an environment less hospitable for wildlife
than the vast and rugged central highlands of Washington. With an average annual
rainfall of less than nine inches, and temperatures that range from well-below
zero to more than 100 degrees, nature’s creatures have to be superbly adapted to
simply survive this harsh and unforgiving ecosystem.
But on the Stevens Ranch near Wilson Creek, the varied wildlife
species that inhabit this broad expanse of rolling, sagebrush-covered hills are
not only surviving – they’re thriving. Among other species, the ranch’s
rangelands are home to a resident herd of 500 mule deer, and a migratory herd of
another 1,000. And the 800 acres of restored wetlands host tens of thousands of
migratory waterfowl annually.
It is a garden of – and for – life.
But this garden did not grow on its own – wouldn’t exist in its
full splendor – were it not for the expertise and commitment of those who have
created and who now care for this unique oasis of life. A group of four business
and family partners, passionately dedicated to improving wildlife habitat on
their farms, are the quiet caretakers behind this remarkable habitat development
The consortium of partners consists of David Stevens, Tom
Pfeifer, Don Schmauder and Derek Stevens who farm various parts of a land mass
covering some 40,000 acres.
Center pivot-irrigated alfalfa, timothy, green peas, wheat and
potatoes make up the traditional production agricultural side of their
operations. But it is the production of wildlife – and the resulting hunting
opportunities – that truly motivates these partners.
Stream stabilization work
has enabled the seasonal waters from Crab Creek to meander in a more natural
fashion. (Photo by Lisa Wareham)
In their quest for better wildlife habitat, they found an
additional partner – USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service – to help
them turn their dreams into reality. "Here’s something you need to know," David
Stevens, the group’s senior partner, says as he leans out the window of his
white pickup. "NRCS is the agency that provides the most benefit to wildlife on
private lands. Their program money goes to the farmers who can see the project
through to completion," he says.
He should know. On the Stevens Ranch, there are some 800 acres
of wetlands enrolled in NRCS’ Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) – a program that
serves to protect and enhance these critical wildlife areas. "There are other
wildlife programs," Mr. Stevens says, "but unlike the NRCS programs, they don’t
work well on private lands. Many people don’t understand that if you’re going to
have an impact on wildlife," he says, "it’s got to be with private landowners."
In addition to the WRP, the ranch also utilizes NRCS’ Wildlife
Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) cost-share funding – helping to install
numerous solar-powered water pumps for wildlife water. Also installed under WHIP
and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) are "ungulate guzzlers,"
which are 1800 gallon, self-sustaining watering facilities. In addition, the
program has provided cost-share funding to help establish "spring developments"
– small reservoirs of water created from naturally occurring springs throughout
Through EQIP, the partners have planted dozens of acres of food
plots – grain and forage specifically grown to provide feed for a wide variety
Wildlife’s response to most of these enhancements has been
immediate and robust. "Where they weren’t before, they are now," Mr. Stevens
says. "It’s too early to see the full effect of the wetlands enhancements," he
says, "but the other projects are clearly helping the wildlife today."
Above, one of four excavated ponds provides critical habitat for many species of wildlife on
the Ranch. (Photo by Lisa Wareham)
Ernie Holt, a soil conservationist with NRCS, says the partners
have planted more than grass and grains as a part of their project. They’ve
planted ideas. "We’ve used this area as a seed project – as a showcase for what
can be done," he says. "After seeing some of the various projects, other farmers
– and even the U.S. Forest Service – have adopted the techniques that they’ve
seen on this ranch," he says.
Because of what his agency has done on the Stevens Ranch, other
ranchers have an increased awareness and interest in the programs NRCS offers.
"There’s no doubt we’ve received more program applications as a result of what
we’ve done out here," Mr. Holt says. "All of this work has had a positive effect
on landowner perceptions – about what can be done on the land," he says.
Stevens, current vice chairman and past president of the
National Mule Deer Foundation, and former Upper Grant Conservation District
Wildlife Farmer of the Year, clearly enjoys seeing greater numbers of deer
grazing throughout the ranch. "My goal," he says, "is to have a deer every
foot." Then adds with a boyish grin, "I’m kidding – kind of."
But Mr. Steven’s love of wildlife doesn’t end with deer. "I’m
for all walks of wildlife," he says, "whatever they are." Love of wildlife and
habitat conservation is a family affair. Steven’s son-in-law and partner Don
Schmauder, was also recognized as an Upper Grant Conservation District Wildlife
Farmer of the Year, and his son Derek, is a member of the Upper Grant
The NRCS cost-share and easement programs help defray the cost
of creating the habitat for the wildlife on the ranch, but Mr. Stevens and his
partners do whatever they have to do to make the best management decisions for
the wildlife – even if it means doing things that are not cost-shared through
NRCS cost-share funding
helped establish spring developments – like the one shown above –
throughout the ranch.
"It’s hard to develop wildlife habitat in this part of the
country, so you do what you have to do to make it work," he says. "Our goal is
to have a good balance for wildlife, but it’s hard."
Despite the challenges, Mr. Stevens says that he’d like to see
other organizations and landowners do more to help develop wildlife habitat. "If
every landowner just planted a food plot," he says, "we’d have so much wildlife
in this state, you’d be tripping over it."
The partners of the Stevens Ranch, using the conservation
programs of the NRCS, are certainly doing everything they can to contribute to
that vision of Mr. Steven’s wildlife utopia.
Article and photos by Ron Nichols
NRCS, June 2006
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