Craig Woodson had a vision of what his ranch could be for wildlife and fisheries. He was able to see much of that dream come to reality and, with foresight and vision, he ensured that the legacy of land stewardship on the ranch continued with the establishment of the Ruby Habitat Foundation* a dozen years ago.
The Woodson Ranch was a gift to The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) from Craig and Martha Woodson when Craig passed away in 2011 and is a stunning property located in the Ruby Valley near the tiny town of Laurin (pronounced La Ray). River bottom habitat and excellent trout fishing, spring-fed creeks, and productive hay meadows comprise the Woodson property. Before Craig passed, he tapped one of his neighbors, Neil Barnosky, a lifelong cattleman and rancher whose family’s ranch is just north of the Woodson property, to chair the Foundation and ensure that the property be a haven for wildlife and trout, as well as a showplace of sustainable agriculture.
In 2014, the Foundation continued its management of the Woodson Ranch stewardship programs, many of which have been in practice for several years. These projects include portions of the ranch that serve as demonstrations for small-scale agriculture, experimental wildlife food plots, tree exclosures, soil health trials, and outdoor classrooms for Madison and Beaverhead county children. In 2015, the Foundation will be hiring a full time outreach coordinator who will work on the ranch from a small historic log cabin that has been converted into a rustic and comfortable office. The cabin and a generous cash contribution for its restoration were donated to the Foundation last year from a person who admired what has been accomplished on the ranch.
“We are really working to show that agriculture and wildlife go hand-in-hand,” said Barnosky. “The Hill House, for example, is about 20 acres and we’re producing a hay crop and showing how a smaller place can be productive.”
The Hill House is used for MLR guests and sits on the western edge of the ranch and looks out over the Ruby River as it meanders its way north toward Sheridan. From the house on a typical summer day, a visitor can see numerous whitetail deer, sandhill cranes, a plethora of waterfowl, pheasants, raptors, and much more. Meanwhile, irrigation hand-line waters a lush hay crop.
Near the Hill House, the Foundation is working with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to experiment with soil health and productivity. In plots of crop “cocktails” which rotate in such root crops as radishes to improve soil health, the Foundation is showing how the soils can be manipulated and enhanced both in till and no-till situations. Other exclosures rotate and experiment with dryland crops.
Exclosures are the name of the game on the Woodson Ranch, since a tremendous whitetail deer population can keep woody shrubs and all manner of crops gnawed down and growth impeded. When Barnosky was growing up in the valley, whitetail deer were unusual and mule deer common. Today, the reverse is true and the ranch enlists hunters every fall to keep that population in check. Meanwhile, trees, shrubs, pollinator crops, and much more, are fenced off from voracious ungulates.
The pollinator crops—native wildflowers and other vegetation—were a keen interest of Craig’s and today help some commercial bee production on the ranch. Meanwhile in the late fall and winter after hunting season, cattle are brought in to graze old grasses for the next crop that spring.
The Woodson Ranch is a popular fishing destination for MLR supporters and the Ruby’s deep holes and long riffles, as well as nearby spring creeks produce nice rainbow and brown trout for anglers. Meanwhile, the abundant wildlife and birdlife on the ranch are testament to Craig Woodson’s legacy and love of Montana.
*a 509(a)(3) support organization to The Montana Land Reliance