- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Keith Houghton didn’t just boost his own business career when he co-created the Ringneck Ranch up in Mitchell County years ago.

He and wife Debra provide 55 to 60 jobs a year in the rural area south of Waconda Lake, The Wichita Eagle reported (https://bit.ly/1rCHzM9 ).

Grocery stores during hunting seasons do a booming business, he said. Ringneck Ranch buys something like 24,000 pheasant chicks to raise for the hunters he entertains. The chicks need feed, so that’s more money stirring the economy.

The economic boost goes on, he said. Hunters who visit his ranch in north-central Kansas pay $500 a day to hunt. They spend more elsewhere in the state, buying high-end equipment, dinners, gas, snacks, lodging, gifts. The footprint those people leave on Kansas economics is colored green.

In a state struggling to pay bills and climb out of recession, contributions like this are not only significant, but instructive, state officials say.

A lot of out-of-state people already come to Kansas to hunt and fish and photograph birds. They spend 32 percent more on average during their trips than the traditional leisure traveler, the state said.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism is planning a targeted marketing campaign including television, digital, e-mail blasts and print advertising to attract even more hunters and anglers to the state.

Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism officials recently released the latest annual figures showing the hundreds of million dollars of benefit Kansas gets every year from hunters, anglers and bird watchers including:

? $401 million or more in hunting-related spending.

? $211 million from fishing

? $10.7 million in non-resident license sales for hunting and fishing. In contrast, state officials said in a prepared statement, resident license sales produced $7.8 million.

The state has been impressed enough with the way Kansas businesses like Houghton have boosted the economy that they solicited testimonials from him and other Kansas businesspeople, describing how spending by outdoorsmen and women help the state, and what could be done to build on that.

“Once I realized that 80 to 90 percent of our hunters come from out of state, I started advertising nationally,” wrote Ken Corbet, the owner of the Ravenwood Lodge in Topeka. “We’ve hosted about seven TV crews to film national hunting shows, which really show how pretty Kansas is.

“I think there’s an important lesson there,” Corbet wrote. “Once people know what Kansas really looks like and what great hunting we offer, they want to experience it. Hunting in Kansas could be what Pike’s Peak is to Colorado. Hunting is a renewable commodity. We’re a pro-hunting state, and everybody loves hunters. They’re friendly, they spend money while they’re here, and we have a lot of great things to offer them.”

Kansas has a lot going for it, Houghton said. Part of it is that nature made Kansas beautiful in many places - and made Kansas a giant pit stop for millions of migratory game birds. But much of it isn’t about hunting, or spending money.

“Friendships are formed here among the hunters who come in for a couple of days,” Houghton said. “They sit around the campfire, sometimes until 2 in the morning, telling stories. They don’t usually do that on the second night, because by then we’ve really taken the starch out of them. But when they do it, they talk far into the night and see the night sky overhead like they’ve never seen it before.”

State officials say that in spite of recent drought years that depleted bird populations, Kansas remains one of the better pheasant-hunting states. In a prepared statement released on Friday, state officials said the state’s fall crop harvests have been good, and that roadside surveys have shown an increase in pheasant brood counts of 70 percent, along with a 50 percent increase in quail numbers.

Waterfowl numbers also are increasing, the state said. Kansas’ wetlands are one of the main stopover places for migrating birds, and surveyors estimate this year’s migration will include 49.2 million ducks, an eight percent increase since surveys began in 1955.

Houghton’s past job as an airline pilot was sometimes not as stable as the one he has now running Ringneck Ranch. He’s devoted to the ranch, which has supported five generations in his family, but it was getting tough years ago to keep the ranch going by traditional agricultural means. But now the ranch not only thrives, it supports jobs and generates revenue for people and businesses for miles around.

He thinks a lot more people in the rest of the state could replicate the success Ringneck Ranch has become. They’d probably need to do it the way he did it, he said - providing full service, everything from meals to bird dogs, with a lot of attention to detail.

But the benefits of success, he said, would include hiring local people from small towns - as he did - giving a jump start to rural communities that have bled population and young people for decades.

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Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, https://www.kansas.com

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