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These are wildlife-safe fencing, specially designed to keep cattle hemmed in but to allow elk and deer free access to the Richard Angus Access Project. (Iain Woessner/The Dickinson Press)

Public hunting access faces drought challenges

BEACH, N.D. — The Richard Angus Access Project is reportedly the largest public hunting access in North Dakota. Its owner is putting in time and money to improve its value to people and wildlife, but persistent drought conditions pose challenges.

"As a rule, most landowners are pretty good stewards of their property," Byron Richard, a rancher and the owner of Richard Angus Ranch, said on the long drive towards the Access, headed towards one of several gateways into the ranchland sanctuary, located around Beaver Creek just north of Beach.

"We had to figure how to rejuvenate this place," he said on Wednesday, Aug. 16. "We knew it was run-down, which it was, so it was just a matter of the challenge to come up with sources of funds to get it back into shape. That's where the partnerships with the wildlife folks came in."

Those folks include the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, Pheasants Forever and the Mule Deer foundation.

A sign outside warns that no motor vehicles are permitted beyond a certain point. People who want to take advantage of the natural bounty, and the hearty elk population, need to do it on foot. Richard has had this land, which encompasses a over 20,000 deeded acres, for a couple of years. The work continues to breathe new life into the parched landscape.

"The drought environment has reduced the volume from these shallow wells, because we've had a multiyear drought," Richard said. "We're running short on water for the cattle, so we're spending a small fortune of my poor funds to provide water for these cattle."

Rig operator Dale Burwick and his associate Walter were dwarfed by a towering drill rig that sat atop a small hill into the Access. They were looking for water, and Burwick was weighing his options next to one of the wells. Richard took a keen interest in his progress, particularly as talk came to cost.

"Hopefully we decide that this formation we're in is the one to go with," Burwick said. "I think that'd be the one to do it."

He'd already been poking at a depth of 600 feet, though, and the deeper he goes, the higher the price tag. An area nearby, known as the Fox Hills, has a guaranteed water source, but it's so deep it's economically challenging.

"He's got the to weigh the cost of going deeper and then move to a place that's shallower. There's no guarantee," Burwick said.

There are other water sources in the area, but for a variety of reasons, including poorly planned infrastructure and the needs of other landowners in the region, those sources aren't available. As Richard put it, demand has outstripped supply.

"They've got people cutting back even harder," Burwick said. "That puts people in a tough spot. Western North Dakota isn't known for an abundance of water. (I mean) it's got water, but it's not economically feasible."

Richard has 800 pair of cows and calves in the Access. On a hot day, they can consume up to 30 gallons of water per pair. He needs a well that can produce 24,000 gallons of water a day to keep them hydrated. With two years of little-to-no rainfall, the wells struggle to produce, and others are running dry. Wildlife also rely on these water sources, and it all affects the mission of making this land better for people and animals.

"I believe that after a point (the wells are) going to say 'screw you' and close off completely until we get monsoons again," Burwick said. "We've got to be confident."

"That's what I like," Richard said. "I like optimism."

In addition to drilling and establishing wells, Richard is working to establish wildlife-friendly fencing in areas of the Access so his cattle can graze without hindering deer or elk.

Ordinary barbed wire isn't used. The fences are specially designed to allow adequate spacing so elk and deer to not get tangled up and so they can go over or under while keeping cattle safely confined.

"The more you fence everything off, the better your grass is going to be in the long term, and the better your grass is the more wildlife you're going to have in the long term," said Jordan Tescher, owner of Tescher Fencing. "For (public hunting land) especially, you're going to need water and everything to be grazed correctly so you can have wildlife around so people can keep hunting here whenever they want to."

Tescher grew up not too far east of the Access, and his knowledge of the topography is an asset in knowing where to fence.

"It takes a lot of thought—it's something we've been doing forever, since I've been growing up," Tescher said. "I learned it from my dad and he learned it from his dad and it's just something you gotta learn by doing it."

The challenges may be great, but Richard remains dedicated to establishing a privately owned, state-supplemented hunting, grazing and wildlife sanctuary for the public to use.

"We wanted to created an environment where we had a combination of feed base for livestock and a regrowth for the benefit of the wildlife," Richard said.