- Associated Press - Sunday, September 11, 2016

BELFIELD, N.D. (AP) - Nate Harling and crew are pounding in more than 100 signs around the biggest public hunting access ever created in North Dakota.

Those yellow PLOTS signs, which stand for Private Lands Open to Sportsmen, are a sight for sore eyes to hunters looking for a place to go where there is no fee, no permission required, The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/2c9EZxU ) reported.

The Richard Angus Ranch on the far western edge of North Dakota consists of more than 20,000 contiguous acres that contain some of the most wildlife-diverse land around.

Ranch owners Byron and Kathy Richard purchased what had been the Beaver Creek Ranch property north of Beach last year, with the idea of creating a cattle and wildlife legacy ranch for future generations. With miles of free-flowing Beaver Creek winding through, high bluffs, buttes and open range supporting everything from chirr-upping prairie dogs to bugling elk, it didn’t take Byron Richard long to realize he had quite an opportunity in hand.

“This is a lot more than we need for a couple of family members,” he said.

He contacted Harling, who manages access programs for the State Game and Fish Department. Harling, in true sporting style, took the ball and ran with it.

The result is not only the largest PLOTS project ever, it’s also the first time so many public and wildlife partners have cooperated on a single project in North Dakota.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Pheasants Forever, the Wild Turkey Federation and the Mule Deer Foundation joined the agency to support the cost of access and infrastructure, including wildlife-friendly fence, water tanks, signs and vehicle access points. Volunteers helped tear out an old cross-fence system, build new fence and water systems, and clean up the property, including an old abandoned oil well location.

The idea with the water projects is to control cattle grazing away from the creek to help restore the riparian areas - the trees, the grass, the fresh water that provide critical habitat for wildlife.

In exchange for the PLOTS payment and other wildlife contributions totaling $664,000, Richard signed a 10-year deal, meaning that sportsmen and women can become familiar with the land and the wildlife season after season for a long time to come.

“To get their return, they needed a long-term commitment,” Richard said. “This is a resource to share with the people.”

That’s not to say he’s not a little bit nervous with no idea how many sportsmen to expect, how much pressure there will be and whether strangers will respect the property.

He predicts good things but says it only takes a few who drive where they shouldn’t, leave trash or grind deep ruts into wet roads to spoil the experience.

“If they show respect and if I don’t see garbage out here, I don’t think it will be a big problem. It will be enforced, and I do want to see the game warden out here,” Richard said.

Wildlife attracts hunters and hunters attract game wardens, but hunters readily self-police because they don’t like to see trash and spoilers, either, according to Harling.

“This is walk-in access only, so it’s not going to be overrun with vehicles or foot traffic. This area is so big, it would take extra effort to pressure the game off the land, they’ll just move around,” Harling said.

Ray Tescher runs the next ranch up from Richard and was out doing a few chores in the ranch yard last week when Richard stopped by.

Tescher says he’s worried the township road leading to his place will look like a highway, if hunters don’t walk into the Richard land like they’re supposed to.

He said he’s anxious to see how it goes and whether hunting pressure on Richard’s land will push more game onto his property and possibly even more hunters than he already gets.

“Will I have to patrol? I’m not into that. If people are trespassing, I’m not going to the Game and Fish, I’m going to the sheriff’s department,” said Richard, who is putting up signs to distinguish his land from the neighbor’s. “When hunters come to a fence, they’ll know where they are.”

Shawn Kelley, regional director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said the organization - local and national - was willing to put $125,000 toward the deal because of the long-term access.

“A lot of younger people are leaving hunting because they can’t afford to pay to hunt. We jumped on board because it’s so long term. Our headquarters got excited because we were doing a landscape-style project outside of the mountains,” Kelley said.

Marshall Johnson, spokesman for the Mule Deer Foundation, said its $81,000 went toward habitat enhancement, including 6 miles of water pipeline to get stock tanks away from Beaver Creek. The funds were part of an Outdoor Heritage grant specifically for habitat projects.

“There’s much more work to do - riparian work, food plots, fencing, parking and establishing a primitive camp. Anything we can do to help mule deer in North Dakota is important,” Johnson said.

Richard said a recent, non-scientific tour of the ranch property counted 112 mule deer, 24 white tail deer, 28 elk, 100 or more turkeys, pheasants, grouse, prairie dogs and coyotes. The ranch is so vast and parts of it so rugged, it’s not possible to accurately know what’s out there, but he said he hopes all the work will continue to improve the resource, the wildlife numbers and the hunting experience.

For now, he’s in it for a decade, and hunters will start showing up as soon as Sept. 2, when antelope and deer bow seasons open. After that, it’ll be up to his son and daughter to decide what happens to the ranch and whether Angus and public access are a good mix.

“If the experience is positive, I’m sure the kids will want to continue this,” Richard said.

The property is listed in the new PLOTS map book for 2016-2017, available from the Game and Fish Department, and also online at the agency’s website.

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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