FORT PIERRE | John Moisan is a hunter.
That becomes apparent when he looks out at the 640 acres of land he owns in Tripp County a few dozen miles south of Presho. Moisan sees the cuts and draws, the cattails and trees not as impediments to farming and cattle but as goldmines for pheasants, grouse and deer. Driving around his property in the back of a friend's pickup, he points to the grass he's planted as his proudest achievement, not the rows of sorghum that also thrive.
Hunched over in an elevated box blind, he points out where a friend killed a giant whitetail buck a year or two before. He said that buck wouldn't have been anywhere near the blind 15 years ago.
Back then, just about every square inch of the property had been covered in wheat stubble. From time to time, a covey of prairie grouse could fly in to feed on the waste grain. A few mule deer might also wander through on occasion. But not much actually lived on the property, Moisan said.
When he first saw the property back in 2002, an eagle was giving the place a once over. Moisan took that as inspiration to buy the place and turn it into something special — a place to harbor and grow wild things. Having a place where he could hunt with his five children was one of the motivations that spurred his purchase of what he would come to call Eagle View Ranch.
"This is my way of giving back to nature," Moisan said.
Moisan grew up in the late '50s and early '60s, when pheasants were like locusts in number. He lived with his mother and her parents on a small piece of ground near Watertown. His grandpa, who'd fought in World War I and spent World War II guiding military brass from the local air base on pheasant hunts, took him hunting when there was time.
Moisan helped his grandparents and, in addition to developing his love for wildlife, forged a deep connection to the land. He graduated from high school and went on to college at the University of South Dakota, where he joined ROTC.
It was the early 1970s and the Vietnam War was still raging. Moisan became an artillery officer and served for a few years.
After his military career, Moisan returned to South Dakota and started working on a master's degree. Eventually, Moisan went to work for the state of South Dakota and moved to the Pierre area. He spent 30 years in state government. During that time, he raised five kids, trained hunting dogs and developed relationships with landowners all over the state who let him and his family hunt.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, commercial pheasant hunting was becoming a bigger business, and finding private land to hunt on was becoming harder. In 2002, his family came into some money.
At about that time, 640 acres of contiguous land in Tripp County came on the market. Nearly every square inch of the property was planted to wheat. There was just one small pasture to the northeast, and it had routinely been grazed to the dirt.
"I saw it as a fixer-upper farm," Moisan said.
He and a business partner offered $400 per acre and eventually paid $412.40. Today, the price per acre for farm ground can run up to $2,500.
It didn't take long for Moisan to be confronted by just how tough restoring the newly christened Eagle View Ranch would be. After a century of tillage and erosion from wind and rain, there wasn't much more than a few inches of topsoil left on most of the farm. Gravel was exposed on the tops of hills.
There were old oil filters, fan belts and broken tractor parts sprinkled liberally across the landscape. Crumbling barns and other buildings filled what had been a farmyard, and there was very little water anywhere on the farm. There wasn't much in the way of wildlife, either.
"It was a hell of a mess," Moisan said.
There was a mortgage to pay and a hefty property tax bill to consider as well, Moisan said. So he needed a renter to produce a crop to help pay the mortgage and taxes. It didn't always go well.
"I lost $30,000 one year," Moisan said.
A haven for wildlife
In 2004, Moisan turned to the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to take land out of production and turn it into wildlife habitat.
He learned about a program contained in the program called CP38, which is better known as State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement, or SAFE. The Farm Service Agency office in Tripp County wasn't familiar with the program but still worked with Moisan to enroll 130 acres.
He planted 42 acres of trees, totaling about 66,000 individual plants. The rest of that first 130 acres was planted to grass.
Moisan's goal for Eagle View Ranch was to create a haven for wildlife while making enough money to break even on the property. The plan involved planting 30 percent of the property to native grasses and enrolling it in CRP, keeping 30 percent of the property as farm ground and another 30 percent as pasture land. The remaining acres would be used for stock dams, drainage basins and a few more manicured acres around the small mobile home and few remaining barns that made up the farmyard.
Making his plan a reality was a tall order, one that would require an experienced, forward-thinking farmer and a thorough understanding of federal, state and privately funded conservation programs.
The man Moisan needed turned out to be Mick Rowe. Rowe farmed more than 1,000 acres in and around Tripp County and had embraced the practice of no-till farming. Rowe said it took him six years to break even on Moisan's land.
"There's just no topsoil," Rowe said. "It's all been eroded away."
Rowe also has embraced modern technology. He's started using satellite imagery to help him plant more efficiently in the spring and to help identify where and how to use chemicals. That translates into more money in his and Moisan's pockets.
That's critical, Moisan said, because even with land enrolled in the CRP program, there's no way he could afford to keep his ranch without profitable farm ground.
"The way I've got it set up now, the land pays for itself," Moisan said.
After planting trees and grass on his marginal cropland, it took about three years before Moisan started seeing a difference in the number of pheasants on his land. By 2008, Moisan said, his sons and friends were able to harvest hundreds of birds in a season.
"The pheasant and grouse crop just exploded," Moisan said.
He started letting people hunt on Eagle View Ranch, provided they cleaned up after themselves. Moisan said if people who asked to hunt had kids and dogs with them, they'd be even more likely to get permission to hunt.
"You could sit on the deck, have breakfast and 60 to 70 pheasants would walk across the yard," Moisan said of the pheasant population on his property.
For four years, the hunting was incredible, Moisan said. Then, in 2012, the pheasant population tanked. Only a few birds were killed on Eagle View Ranch that year. In 2013, Moisan said he stopped hunting the property.
The birds still haven't come back, he said, even though the habitat on his property is some of the best around.
"I just don't understand that," Moisan said. "If the wildlife comes back, I've got a five-star hotel with a sign out that says vacancy."
Still, he's proud of what he's done with Eagle View Ranch.
"My goal is pretty much achieved," Moisan said. "To be able to take a piece of dirt that had been abused for 100 years and turn it into something special is priceless."