Illinois Habitat Strike Team Helps Create Access Opportunities

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Improving upland habitat and providing places to hunt in the Land of Lincoln

By Tom Branson

In a state like Illinois, where 97 percent of the land is privately owned, finding a place to go can be the most challenging part of hunting.  

In 2011 the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) created the Illinois Recreational Access Program (IRAP) to help address this challenge through the USDA-NRCS Voluntary Public Access-Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP). 

Since its inception IRAP has enrolled over 24,000 acres of private land in 50 counties throughout the state, allowing for controlled public hunting access. Landowners who enroll receive numerous benefits such as a habitat/forest management plan, a stipend for each outdoor activity they allow, implementation and cost-share assistance on habitat projects, and liability coverage for IRAP activities that occur on their properties.

The ability to customize the species and seasons hunted is a popular aspect for participating landowners, allowing them flexibility to determine when hunters will be accessing their properties. This approach also creates a quality experience for hunters.

While the financial incentives are attractive, the habitat improvements that landowners receive are often key motivators driving landowner participation. In 2016, IDNR partnered with Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever and the National Great Rivers Recreational and Education Center (NGRREC) to create two teams of habitat specialists to assist these landowners with their habitat management on IRAP properties. The PF/QF team is based in west-central Illinois and works across a large geography. 

These Habitat Strike Teams have completed numerous habitat projects throughout the state. Examples include invasive species removal, timber stand improvements, timber marking for harvest, tree/shrub planting, prescribed burning and native prairie establishment.

The PF/QF Strike Team has primarily focused on promoting upland habitat on IRAP sites. The team has assisted landowners with site preparation and planting of CRP, prescribed burning, creating early-successional habitat, edge-feathering and covey headquarters establishment.
 
Additionally, the Habitat Strike Team has assisted IDNR Natural Heritage biologists on several Illinois state sites with prescribed burning and invasive species management. 

This dedicated team of four — Ryan Kurtz and Jared Trickey (technicians, with one vacancy to fill) and me as coordinator — work hard to improve habitat and increase access for Illinois’ hunters ... a truly perfect combination in the Land of Lincoln.

For more information on IRAP, go to illinois.gov/dnr/conservation/IRAP

Tom Branson is PF/QF's Illinois Habitat Strike Team Coordinator.

This article originally appeared in the
PF on the Landscape section of Pheasants Forever Journal / Winter 2021 edition.