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Programs give hunters access

The North Dakota State Game and Fish Department has had programs that cooperatively involve private landowners since the 1950s. But it's been less than 10 years since the first inverted yellow triangular sign went up on tracts called "Private Lan...

The North Dakota State Game and Fish Department has had programs that cooperatively involve private landowners since the 1950s. But it's been less than 10 years since the first inverted yellow triangular sign went up on tracts called "Private Land Open to Sportsmen."

The PLOTS has its roots in legislation passed in 1997. The new law combined several different funds into one and removed restrictions on how the Game and Fish Department could use money earmarked for these funds. At the time, Game and Fish had about 36,000 acres in habitat, tree and food plots.

The legislation also enabled a new effort to provide public hunting access to grasslands in counties where pheasant densities were highest. The first on-the-ground projects under a new program called CRP cost-sharing debuted in 1998, with landowners enrolling about 24,000 acres of Conservation Reserve Program and adjacent acres.

In exchange for a cost-share of up to half the cost of the grass seed required to plant the former cropland to grass, the landowners signed agreements that allowed hunting access to those acres for the duration of the CRP contract.

Since then, the program has grown rapidly. This fall, hunters will find about 899,000 acres highlighted in the annual PLOTS guide. These acres are open to walking hunting access from Sept. 1 through April 1.

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Understand that PLOTS is a voluntary program. Landowners decide whether they want to become involved. Over the years new programs have been designed to fit the needs of many different types of operations. The focus has expanded from just the primary pheasant counties, to all parts of the state, embracing a variety of hunting opportunities.

In 2006, the CRP cost-share program involves about 303,000 acres. The most popular program is Working Lands, which includes just more than 415,000 acres. Under Working Lands, landowners can enroll part or all of their operations in short-term contracts.

Landowners signed up nearly a quarter-million acres into Working Lands in 2004, and most of those contracts were for two years. Cooperators apparently liked this option because more than 82 percent renewed their contracts after the 2005 hunting seasons. In addition, over the last two years hundreds of new tracts have been enrolled as well.

Habitat plots are longer-term agreements that involve idled land. They are also fairly popular and widespread, with about 137,000 acres this year.

The other PLOTS programs and their acres as of Sept. 22 are: CREP/Coverlocks, 13,941; Native Forest, 14,223; Wetland Reserve Program incentive, 6,434; Beginning Farmer, 2,720; Tree Planting cost-share 3,177; and Food plots, 1,247.

Just recently, the Game and Fish Department completed its first community match contract, which allows local businesses, chambers of commerce, city councils and wildlife clubs to work with interested landowners and provide an incentive payment in addition to standard PLOTS payments.

The tract in southern Dickey County is 635 acres and was made possible through the efforts of the local Pheasants Forever chapter, the landowner, and businesses and individuals from the community of Ellendale.

The money to fund the PLOTS program comes from hunters, and Game and Fish personal are tasked with implementing the programs in the hunters' best interest.

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PLOTS will continue to evolve, but all entities with a stake in the future of North Dakota's rich hunting heritage understand that no single program or tract of land will by itself preserve this tradition.

Hunters must also continue to make a concerted effort to build relationships with private landowners, and work to maintain and enhance both state and federal public lands. More options will mean better chances that our experiences will match our expectations.

Leier, a biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in West Fargo, can be reached at dleier@nd.gov

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