Nebraska 2018 RuJoDen Ranch Chadron Leopold Conservation Award Recipient

RuJoDen Ranch

Jim and Lora O’Rourke have roots in education and the land.

Their careers involve passing their knowledge of natural resources on to others. They bring that passion to management of their ranch in northwestern Nebraska.

Just the second family to own the land (homesteaded in the 1860s) when Jim O’Rourke’s parents bought the ranch south of Chadron in 1950. They quickly erected a sign that reads “O’Rourke RuJoDen Ranch Wildlife Habitat.” It still stands today, as does the family’s commitment to the soil, water and wildlife habitat.

Jim and Lora O’Rourke both grew up working on ranches and have degrees in the science of managing rangeland. Since taking the reins of the property in 1988 they’ve put what they know about conservation into action.

Previously cultivated fields were seeded with perennial grasses. The soils along the Chadron Creek were stabilized with large vegetative buffer zones. Some trees were planted while others were thinned to produce income, increase plant diversity, and control erosion and wildfires. Windbreaks were established and controlled burns on rangeland took place. Innovative fencing and watering systems were installed that benefit livestock and wildlife. Thoughtful grazing practices have allowed the land to thrive.

In many ways the ranch is natural resource classroom. Off the ranch, Jim worked on range livestock projects in Africa before returning to home to work as a professor, developing a Range Management Program at Chadron State College.

The O’Rourkes are blazing another trail in a state that has seen an influx of smaller acreage ranches and farms. They’ve tested everything from beekeeping to agro-tourism as creative ways to make ends meet on less land.

Among their most unique endeavors is offering overnight stays in historic sheep herder wagons. Their guests, who are encouraged to hunt and fish, reap the benefits of improved rainbow trout habitat in the Chadron Creek. The O’Rourkes planted trees near the creek, which help cool the water. This creates better habitat for fish, which attracts waterfowl ranging from wood ducks to blue heron.

The ranch’s diversity is guided by a wisdom that all systems must work together in order to achieve a balanced landscape.

The ranch is also a great place to raise a family. The O’Rourke’s children, Shannon and Seth, raise a flock of free range chickens and market their eggs locally.

They are the next generation who hope to carry on the land ethic tradition at RuJoDen Ranch.

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