Walk-In Areas Beckon Hunters

84d60bde-7bff-4d90-9775-01811f15daf9
For four years, Minnesota pheasant hunters have found fields marked by yellow hexagons emblazoned with WIA. Walk-in areas, private land leased for hunter access, have been a productive addition to the state’s many wildlife management areas.
 
Our favorite was the “octopus.” It was a 40-acre patch of grassland with three long arms. The skinny arms were just the ticket for our small group—two hunters and one aged Gordon setter. Early one afternoon as my friend took a nap in the pickup, I marched one of the arms down and back, picking off one rooster that flushed from a tall patch of grass, missing another as it curved out and away and downing a second as it flushed at close range. 
 
As I hiked back toward the road, several more roosters flushed. I watched as they flew into a distant field. 
 
Minnesota hunters are still exploring these new WIAs. So are hunters in several other pheasant-country states that recently started leasing walk-in areas with grants from the federal Voluntary Public Access (VPA) and Habitat Incentive Program, written into the 2008 Farm Bill.
 
But not all walk-in programs are created equal. Some states—think the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Montana—have been at the walk-in game much longer. They’ve capitalized on federal Conservation Reserve Program land, paying just a few bucks more per acre to open hundreds of thousands of acres of good habitat to hunters. In doing so, they have forged a strong bond between hunters and landowners, invested hunters more strongly in the future of grassland efforts such as CRP and have even strengthened farmland hunting tourism.
 
That’s not all. Some states have astutely used walk-in leasing to leverage habitat improvement projects—better pay for better habitat.
 
Bob St. Pierre, vice president of marketing for Pheasants Forever, is a big fan of these efforts. He’s especially impressed by Nebraska’s Open Fields and Waters Program.
 
“The proof is in the birds,” he says. “No matter what year I’ve been in Nebraska, and no matter what the weather conditions are, Nebraska’s walk-in areas have consistently better habitat, even in drought conditions,” he says. “You don’t have to have a biologist’s degree to see the diversity.” 
 
So what makes some walk-in programs beacons of conservation and others not so much? And what can new walk-in programs learn from the old? Here’s how several walk-in programs in pheasant range compare.
 

Minnesota

Minnesota began its Walk-in Area program with the help of a federal VPA grant. Walk-in acres now total about 21,000, mostly in the agricultural west and south. “Pheasants are probably the number one target species,” says Jesse Roberts, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) walk-in access coordinator.
 
Minnesota purchases one- to three-year contracts on grassland, wetlands and woodlands. It pays a base rate of $10 an acre and a dollar extra for blocks larger than 140 acres, parcels near other public hunting and another $1 per acre for multiple year enrollments.
 
An inspection insures a parcel has huntable habitat, but the program offers no premium for higher-quality habitat or incentives to improve habitat. “Typically the parcels that are already enrolled in a conservation program have pretty good habitat already,” says Roberts. “A mowed hayfield isn’t going to cut it.”
 
Minnesota has long emphasized buying land to protect habitat. Its state wildlife management areas total 1.29 million acres. Walk-in areas are a fraction in comparison. The state so far has made no commitment to take on the program if no federal funds are available when the current leases expire in 2016. A $3 surcharge required to hunt WIAs goes to MDNR administration, but does not pay for leases.
 

Wisconsin

Wisconsin ran a hunter walk-in program for many years, but used a federal VPA grant to upgrade, increasing lease rates and signing up additional parcels in 2011. The state now leases more than 38,000 acres, mostly in southern Wisconsin for deer, turkey, pheasant and small game.  Most will remain under lease until 2017.  The state has not committed to continue without federal dollars. Says Justin Blindert, Wisconsin’s voluntary public access program coordinator, “We are hoping to have federal money to continue those.”
 
Wisconsin scales payment by cover type—$3 an acre for ag land, $10 an acre for grassland and $15 an acre for woodland. But it offers no incentives for habitat improvement or higher rates for better habitat. Says Blindert, “We’re looking to transition into being able to offer incentives to do habitat improvements.”
 
Wisconsin also has its Turkey Hunting Access Program, funded by the state turkey stamp to open private land for spring turkey scouting and hunting. “The idea was a lot of people don’t want to open their property for trapping, hiking, snowshoeing and deer hunting especially,” says Blindert. “Once you take that out, it’s a little easier to persuade people to get into the program.” 

Iowa

Iowa was already investigating a walk-in program when federal VPA funds “jump-started” the process, says Kelly Smith, private lands program coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
 
The Iowa Habitat Access Program (IHAP) leases about 8,000 acres in a state that, unlike Minnesota and Wisconsin, has very little public landownership—only about two percent. 
 
Unlike many walk-in programs, Iowa’s doesn’t pay landowners simply to open land to public hunting. A landowner meets one-on-one with a private-lands biologist to develop a wildlife management plan specific to the site, says Smith. When habitat work is complete, the landowner is paid and the site is open to hunting. In addition to federal money, the program is funded with $1 assessed to every state habitat stamp sold. 
 
Nearly 60 percent of IHAP walk-in acres are also enrolled in CRP. The management plan gives biologists a chance to “look beyond CRP,” says Smith. “Let’s look at your fencerows. Let’s look at your woodland. What else can we be doing to make the entire property a quality recreational opportunity?”
 
The program has twin goals—access and habitat, says Smith. “We want to have places for people to go that have high-quality recreational opportunities once they get there.” 
 

Montana

Begun in 1985 and expanded in 1996, Montana’s Block Management Program enrolls 7.4 million acres of private farm and ranch land for public hunting of all kinds, from elk to upland birds, says Alan Charles, the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks landowner/sportsmen coordinator. 
 
Blocks range from 50 acres to more than 100,000. In some areas, hunters are free to come and go. In others, hunters must sign in with the landowner or FWP and may be apportioned to different areas. Block Management is funded by license sales and chances sold for the Supertag license lottery.
 
Enrollments hinge on habitat type, total acreage and hunting opportunities. Landowners may receive a sportsman’s license, liability protection, livestock loss reimbursement and compensation to offset potential public hunting impacts. But premiums aren’t paid for quality of habitat enrolled. But that’s not the point, says Charles. “The focus is on providing hunting access and helping landowners manage public hunting on lands that remain under their control.”
 

Kansas

Kansas is 97 percent private land. To take pressure off limited public hunting areas, the state began its Walk-in Hunting Access Program in 1995. Today, it enrolls more than one million acres.
 
Twin objectives of the program are recruiting young hunters and keeping older ones by providing more places to hunt, says Jake George, private lands coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “We tried to make that as easy as possible—here’s a book, here’s a million-plus acres, you can hunt on any one of them, all you need is a hunting license.”
 
About 60 percent of walk-in acres are CRP land. “We couldn’t afford to offer enough incentives to get folks to not till stuff with ag prices the way they were the last couple of years,” says George. As a result, walk-in acres have been lost as farmers withdraw land from CRP. 
 
Federal Pittman-Robertson funds and state hunting license fees support the program. Federal VPA funds were used to sign land up for 10-year contracts if landowners improved crop rotations for conservation and planted buffer strips.
 
Otherwise, Kansas does not pay more for higher quality habitat or for improving habitat.  Says George, “The walk-in program is focused on hunting access.” 

South Dakota

South Dakota started leasing access to private land back in 1988 with its Pheasant for Everyone Program. Now called the Walk-in Areas Program, it has grown to 1.25 million acres, nearly five times the acreage of state game production areas, says Mark Norton, hunting access and Farm Bill coordinator. About 300,000 acres are suitable for pheasant hunting.
 
The rate of payment varies, depending on quality of habitat. Base payment is $1 an acre, which may include land that is cropped or hayed. CRP or any other “undisturbed habitat” such as shelterbelt, food plot, range or pasture that isn’t grazed fetches an additional $5 per acre. 
 
Leases can be annual or multiyear. They often run the length of CRP contracts—10 to 15 years. With the withdrawal of land from CRP, South Dakota has lost walk-in acreage. But it has made up for it through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to enroll CRP in the James River watershed that is open year-round to hunting and fishing. 
 
The state used a federal VPA grant for signing bonuses. Otherwise, the program is supported by hunting license sales. Says Norton, “Hunter access is the top priority.”
 

North Dakota

North Dakota’s Private Land Open to Sportsmen program started in the late 1990s. PLOTS acreage peaked in 2007 at just over one million acres. As land has been withdrawn from CRP, it has also fallen out of PLOTS, which now totals about 735,000 acres. PLOTS is supported by license fees and interest off the North Dakota Game and Fish general fund.
 
PLOTS lease payments aren’t high enough to keep land in conservation, says Kevin Kading, section leader for the private lands program. “There’s just a limit on how much you can do.” Even so, lease rates can drive habitat improvement. 
 
“Underneath that PLOTS umbrella there are a lot of different program payments,” says Kading.  For example, a varied parcel of cropland, CRP, woody draw and wetland would qualify for the Working Lands Program. “We built the program so landowners can see what they stand to get if they enhance the land they have. If they want to have more grass on their land, if they want to do some change up on their cropping system or if they want to do more beneficial practices out there that will benefit wildlife, they can actually see that on their payment sheet and see exactly what they stand to make or what they stand to lose if they don’t do those things.”
 

Nebraska

Nebraska’s far-reaching hunter-access program began in 1997 to lease access to CRP acres. In 2008, it brought in other lands and became known as Open Fields and Waters. “Now we have CRP, but we also have just grassland, woodland, lakes, streams and ponds,” including access for both hunting and fishing, says Kelsey Drey, coordinating wildlife biologist and Open Fields and Waters Program coordinator. 
 
Drey works with Game and Parks staff, but is a Pheasants Forever employee. Open Fields and Waters currently enrolls 280,000 land acres and 400 water acres for public access, in a state that is 97 percent privately owned. 
 
Open Fields puts a premium on higher quality habitat. The program may pay as little as $1.50 an acre for “low-rate CRP” and as much as $10 for “high-rate CRP.” The difference? Low rate is likely to be a monoculture, such as brome grass. High rate will be a more diverse mix of grasses and forbs “that we as biologists see as important for pheasant and quail reproduction,” says Drey.
 
Open Fields also requires participants to improve habitat on an average 10 percent of their acreage each year, says Pete Berthelsen, Pheasant Forever’s director of habitat partnerships, who helped develop the Nebraska program. The program has received federal VPA money and is also supported by federal Pittman-Robertson funds, state license fees and money from Pheasants Forever and the National Wild Turkey Federation. 
 
Nebraska operates Open Fields both as an access and habitat program. “We strive to make sure we are putting in quality habitat,” says Drey. “We also want to make sure we’re providing a lot of access for hunters.” 
 
Nebraska and other states are demonstrating that walk-in programs can be an important key to unlock access to millions of acres of CRP throughout pheasant country. These programs can also act as leverage to improve the quality of habitat for more birds, better hunting and conservation benefits such as cleaner water and cover for nongame species. 
 
Berthelsen suggests states just beginning walk-in programs should look to some of the best features of well-established programs that put an emphasis on improving grassland habitat. Buying access is just a first step, he says. 
 
“If I could use a baseball analogy, I would say that’s hitting a really solid single or stretching it out to a double. When you include the habitat improvement aspect into the access as well, you now have a home run.”
 
Story by Greg Breining