Grassland Love Affair


Honesty, integrity, and productive partnerships thrive amid the native grasslands, wetlands, gravel-bottom creeks, and calcareous fens of Blue Bell Ranch in northeastern South Dakota.

The reason: Herb and Bev Hamann, the ranch’s owners and land stewards for the past 45 years. Rooted in the native tallgrass prairie is the Hamann’s belief that their fundamental role as land managers is to conserve and protect the land’s wildlife and resources for generations to come.

And it shows. Native grass and vegetation stretch for miles like a soft blanket over Blue Bell Ranch. The diversity of native vegetation throughout the ranch provides important forage, habitat, and cover for grassland birds, pollinating insects and other wildlife.

It’s obvious the Hamanns have a thing for grass.

“As long as I can remember, even before I went to school, I liked grass,” said Herb Hamann. “I just like grass too much to plow good grassland up; it just bothers me.”

Cattle like grass, too. The Hamanns recognize their base asset is the grassland itself; the cattle are tools to harvest the grass. If the grass is good, the ranch will prosper.

Located in the heart of the Prairie Coteau, the largest remaining piece of native northern tallgrass prairie in the U.S., Blue Bell Ranch has grown from 800 to 6,250 acres under the couple’s care. Their honest business reputation and care for the land won the trust of neighboring landowners, who, when they were ready to sell their land, approached the Hamanns.

The expanded ranch relies not just on the elder Hamanns, but their children, too. Arla Poindexter and Breck Hamann both play integral roles on the ranch.

Like their parents, the siblings know native plants intimately and recognize the value of diverse vegetation. Their plant identification skills were honed on a ranch that allows native species to flourish — it was their own living classroom.

“We’ve subscribed to the same theories they [Herb and Bev] have, too,” said Arla Poindexter. “It’s very simple for us. If we take care of the pasture, the pasture will take care of the cow.”

Over the years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and the Hamanns have cultivated a partnership that has conserved and protected the ranch’s lands. The Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife (PFW) Program, a voluntary private lands habitat and restoration program, has partnered with the Hamanns to help make Blue Bell Ranch as successful as it is sustainable.

In 2012, after hours of good conversations, earned trust and time, conservation easements were placed through the Service on nearly 4,300 acres of Blue Bell Ranch. A conservation easement places land-use and development restrictions on a tract to protect its resources.

The work didn’t stop there. Jennifer Briggs, a Service PFW biologist, helped restore five drained wetlands. She also designed a grazing system for the 4,300-acre conservation area, which led to the construction of nearly three miles of fence, a mile of water pipeline and a water tank.

Result: Blue Bell Ranch has healthy grass cover and habitat for grassland birds and other wildlife, and supports cattle as well. Thanks to the Hamanns’ strong support and promotion, news spread through the local community, and others added easements to their land.

Kurt Forman, the Service’s South Dakota PFW coordinator, spent 24 years working with ranchers throughout South Dakota. Forman compares the Hamanns to renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, who came up with the idea of the “land ethic,” which calls for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature.

“Spending time on the expansive native prairie that Herb and Bev quietly stewarded over the years reminds me of Aldo Leopold’s words, ‘The landscape of any farm is the owner’s portrait of himself’,” Forman said. “Over the years, Herb and his family have indeed developed a true portrait of land stewardship and conservation we can all learn from.”

The Hamanns’ reputation and land ethic are well-known in their community. They received the 1983 South Dakota Rangeman of the Year award. Last year, they were honored with the 2017 South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award.

The Hamanns’ values carry over to all aspects of ranch management, too. Rotating grazing sites lessens the ecological impacts of cattle and avoids critical times for wildlife, especially during nesting. The Hamanns also are conservative with chemical applications on the ranch, choosing limited spot spraying only when necessary; other times, they rely on grazing, prescribed fire and other techniques to keep their ranch healthy. They even harness the appetite of bugs that eat and help control invasive plants.

The fruits of the Hamann’s management show in the plethora of flowering plants, flowers, and insects that abound on the ranch.

Herb and Bev Hamann believe people and personal connections are key to productive partnerships. They voice appreciation for genuine partners who are truthful about conservation goals, expectations, and risks; get accurate answers; and explore compromise to advance mutual goals. As they say, behind a productive partnership are people who share values, information, and knowledge.

The Service and the Hamanns spent more than a decade working together and developing their relationship. A manager spent countless hours discussing easement options. A heavy equipment operator restored wetlands. A realty specialist meticulously explained legal documents, and a PFW biologist developed onsite conservation actions. The common denominator? People.

“We weren’t going to break the land anyway. But, the guys in the agencies we work with make the decisions easier. It has a lot to do with the people who are presenting the conservation program,” said Breck Hamann.

This partnership between the Service and the Hamanns, built on honesty and integrity, secured perpetual conservation easements on Blue Bell Ranch, forever protecting the land Herb and Bev Hamann spent a lifetime improving.

The grass will remain on Blue Bell Ranch, just as Herb Hamann likes it.