When Bruce Switzer’s son, Adam, and daughter, Sarah, expressed their desire to come back to the ranch to make a living and a life, it was clear that they’d have to find additional ways to bring in income. The answers they came up with have turned their ranch into a destination for hunters, wildlife watchers and birders from around the world, and a place where four generations of the family are living and growing together. By sharing their experience, they hope to serve as a model to other threatened farms and ranches by demonstrating how to diversify land use to stimulate alternative incomes while conserving and promoting traditional agriculture.
Calamas Outfitters began as a hunting operation and grew quickly. Now, they offer river canoeing, tanking and tubing, and horseback riding, as well as sandhill safari jeep tours that show visitors the natural beauty of the area, and how the ranch fits on the land. Bird watching was a natural addition for their ecotourism business, and since the ranch is home to sharp-tailed grouse dancing and prairie chicken booming grounds, visitors were soon “flocking” to the ranch.
In 2009, they created the Switzer Ranch and Nature Reserve to formally recognize the important role that conservation had always played in the management of the ranch. Says Sarah, “The formation of our own private nature reserve prompted us to define our bio-diversity goals which include grazing for heterogeneity, restoring ecological processes, restoring natural hydrology, and controlling invasives.”
Conservation and education go hand in hand, and using their ranch as a base, the family has worked to reconnect visitors to the land, and help them understand the role that grazing plays in protecting habitat. As part of this work, two years ago the ranch and Calamas Outfitters hosted the first annual Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival with the help of the Gracie Creek Landowners, Audubon Nebraska, The Nature Conservancy, the Nebraska Bird Partnership, and the World Wildlife Fund.
Working with non-profit conservation organizations has been an important to the growth of Calamas Outfitters. Says Sarah, “We began working with non-profits like Audubon, The Grassland Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Not only did these groups provide excellent support and information, the latter two organizations organized a study tour for Great Plains ranchers to the African country of Namibia to see the successful use of eco-tourism to stimulate conservation outcomes there. There we witnessed how merging these two things could not only accomplish many of our conservation goals but could also stimulate our local economy, provide our community with a long term plan for the future and help ensure that the next generations of ranchers have the opportunity to live and work here in the Sandhills.” The trip showed them how to manage for both wildlife and cattle based on conservation plans, and then how to market their conservation programs as part of their ecotourism products.
You can take your own virtual trip to the Switzer Ranch and meet some of the family in this beautiful 9 minute video by the World Wildlife Federation. Bruce Switzer talks about the difficulty of change, and shares his enthusiasm for the results of “getting over it.” Plus you’ll get to see the dancing sharp tailed grouse and booming prairie chickens and how the ranch and it’s management works to promote bird habitat.
This article was based on a presentation done by Bruce Switzer and Sarah Sortum for the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition’s 2012 annual meeting, and on information gathered from the websites above, and Reefs to Rockies Q & A with Calamus Outfitters.