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Ranching's new look

The Walkers have diversified their ranching to include wildlife-friendly crops. 

Ranger Creek Ranch in Knox, Baylor, and Archer Counties, Texas, is thriving thanks to the owners' decision to improve their land's habitats and diversify their ranching and farming business. "Diversification is key to surviving in agriculture today," said Ranell Walker, one of the owners of the 53,000-acre, family-run ranch.

According to Ranell, declining agricultural commodity prices have forced ranchers to identify other values their land has to offer. The Walkers didn't have to look far to find those values. About 38,000 acres of the ranch have been accessed by hunters over the past 15 years. The idea of establishing a premiere hunting and nature tourism lodge as an adjunct to their ranching and farming business just made good sense, but improvements to the ranch were needed to achieve their vision of a "class operation."

Dryland wheat and oats have been the Walkers' crops of choice, but they have begun to plant milo, too. "These bigger fields serve as large food plots for wildlife," Ranell explained. "Each crop's seed matures at different times of the year, producing year-round feed for birds and deer. If it's not a crop that will help wildlife, then we don't plant it."

The Walkers' business plan includes several habitat-improvement projects. One of those, funded in part by the Playa Lakes Joint Venture, was completed last year. Partners finished the development of a 10-acre, shallow-water area to encourage growth of native moist-soil plants-good habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, and wading birds.

The partners constructed two terraces to divert rainfall into the basin, installed a pump and drilled and cased a well so that the basin could be filled during periods of little rainfall, and fenced the project area to control cattle grazing. "The joint venture did take some acres out of production, and the fence involved some expense to construct. However, the wildlife benefits and increased income far outweigh the expense and inconvenience of the fence," declared Ranell.

The project cost $7,002. The joint venture's ConocoPhillips Fund contributed $3,399 to the effort. The Walkers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service added $3,603 to complete the project.

This past season, the ranch's habitats drew in several wildlife species attractive to hunters: Canada, Ross', and snow goose, northern pintail, canvasback, gadwall, wood duck, green-winged and cinnamon teal, American wigeon, hooded merganser, ruddy duck, white-tailed deer, scaled quail, Rio Grande turkey, ring-necked pheasant, and mourning dove.

Photographers "shot" birds, too, while birders enjoyed guided treks to list birds such as eastern screech-owl, black-crested titmouse, Cassin's sparrow, Carolina chickadee, and Harris' sparrow. As if that weren't enough wildlife for any nature lover to enjoy, the sight of 10,000 Monarch butterflies roosting on the property caused some lightheadedness.

"There is something for everyone at the ranch," Ranell explained. "Anglers, big and small game hunters, wildlife photographers, and birders can experience their recreational passions on the ranch's prairies, canyon lands, and rolling mesquite flats and in its ponds and rivers." The Walkers' expanded vision for the ranch also includes educational programs, such as gun and shooting safety training for youth.

"Our mind set," said Ranell, "is to make ranching and wildlife management work together. By improving wildlife habitat, we can increase our income and keep this beautiful land as it is." Welcome to ranching's new look.

Republished with permission of "Birdscapes: News from International Habitat Conservation Partnerships," a publication of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's bird habitat conservation division. For more information or to subscribe, please visit their website at http://library.fws.gov/Birdscapes/birdindex.htm.