HELPING WILDLIFE. Rancher's `private' wildlife refuge doesn't hurt his business either

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Dayton Hyde may be doing more to save wildlife than any person in America. His cattle ranch in Chiloquin, Oregon is better known for the nesting bald eagles and ospreys than for its beef production. Called ``weird'' by some of his fellow ranchers, Mr. Hyde bucks the system by raising coyotes and setting aside a quarter of his land for wildlife. Word began to get around about how his self-styled private refuge did wonders for wildlife without disrupting ranch operations.

``With a little bit of work it just became such an exciting wildlife place that I thought well, there must be a lot of people like me scattered around North America who have good, viable land, who would like to know how to do this,'' he explains.

Hyde, called ``Hawk'' by friends, was so swamped with requests for information that he formed ``Operation Stronghold'' in 1979, a nonprofit corporation that helps private landowners establish wildlife habitat. In less than eight years, the little known Stronghold program can boast of over 4 million acres of participating private land.

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``We found very quickly that when people got personally involved in creating wildlife habitat, something very nice happened to their lives. They got thoroughly bound up in what they were doing. Some went into making plantings for butterflies, others restored bits of native prairie.''

His ideas have not met with universal acceptance. Many ranchers take a dim view of his support for coyotes. ``He has had a slightly different view than some of his neighbors,'' says the former president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, William Ross. ``Some of our people think he is a bit too liberal on coyotes. The doggone things are a necessary part of the system, we just don't want so darn many of them,'' he continued.

Hyde concedes that coyotes can be a problem.

``A great many ranchers have suffered a lot of damage with coyotes,'' he admits. ``One of the things we have tried to do is work out a system whereby we can have the coyotes on our land for what good they can do ... and [still] control the damages.''

``It always concerned me that people would be losing 25 percent of their alfalfa to jack rabbits and still be trapping the coyotes just outside their fence. It just didn't make sense to me.''

Much of Hyde's conviction is born of experience. When he put 25 percent of his ranch into marshes, a new ecosystem began to emerge.

Returning blackbirds ate the grasshoppers, followed by predators (including coyotes) which came in and controlled the short-tailed ground squirrels and field mice. The new wetland areas moderated the temperature, eliminating winter frost damage.

``We ended up with a 54 percent increase in beef tonnage over my uncle's day when he ran it strictly by what was then considered a good farming method,'' Hyde maintains. ``So there are advantages to it.''

Despite their occasional objection to coyotes, ranchers and other landowners support the Stronghold program. ``The majority of the [Oregon Cattlemen's Association] is in favor of his plan,'' says William Ross. ``Hawk has done a tremendous job for us. He has put together a program that the rest of us don't have the time or the foresight to do,'' he continued.

Most ranches and farms have marginal land that could be dedicated to habitat according to Stronghold supporters. For a small fee a landowner can join the program and obtain technical assistance and special signs to post, informing potential trespassers that the land is part of a nationwide conservation and wildlife program. ``All we ask when they join the program is that they do something significant for wildlife. It doesn't have to be costly,'' says Hyde. About 80 percent of all wildlife live on private land. Popular public lands often have lower concentrations of wildlife because of the relatively high rate of human exposure. ``I don't mean to criticize the public lands, but ... on private lands I can give these animals privacy,'' Hyde explains. The program might have some hidden drawbacks however.

State officials now want to zone part of Hyde's ranch as wetlands, and restrict his land-use options because of the nesting bald eagles - neither of which would exist if he hadn't created the habitat. Dayton Hyde warns that such actions by public officials will prevent other ranchers from developing special wildlife areas, harming wildlife in the long run.

One of his earliest wildlife success stories involved his efforts to help the nearly extinct Sandhill crane. He successfully raised some on his ranch, serving as their adopted parent. Problems developed, however, when they became lost during fall migration.

Unknown to him, the cranes were making themselves at home on a military air base north of San Francisco. Their notoriety soured, however, when they pecked through screens to the general's quarters and also played in front of jets trying to land on the runway.

With military expediency, the mischievous birds were shipped off to the San Francisco zoo, which proudly displayed them in the zoo's aviary as the only Sandhill cranes in captivity. But not for long. About nine months later a tall, lanky Dayton Hyde moved to the rear of a small crowd in the aviary and uttered his feeding call.

Within minutes the cranes picked him out and started dancing. Dayton, with his long search to find them now over, danced with them. The display convinced the zoo director, who reluctantly gave up his prize birds. The cranes followed the smiling Oregon cattle rancher out of the aviary, jumped into the back seat of his station wagon, and migrated north on the interstate.

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