Minnesota's fledgling walk-in access hunting program will be 55 percent larger next fall than last year, when the program began.

The state has enrolled more than 14,000 acres, compared to 9,000 acres in 2011.

And, because of a law passed by the Legislature, there's enough money for the program to run through 2014.

"We're pretty pleased," said Marybeth Block, Department of Natural Resources program coordinator.

However, long-term funding remains a problem. The Legislature rejected a proposal to charge users a $15 fee, and existing funds could run out after 2014.

"We'll have to come up with other ways to fund this," Block said.

Under the program, landowners in 21 southwestern Minnesota counties are paid a per-acre fee to allow public hunting on their property. Pheasant hunters are the primary beneficiary, though other hunting is allowed. The program is modeled after popular ones in other states, including South Dakota.

Though long-term funding wasn't resolved, the Legislature's action keeps the program alive and gives it a chance to grow and gain support from hunters and landowners.

Long sought by hunters, the walk-in program was launched with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's farm bill. Initially, the government was to provide $2.7 million over three years. But Congress killed the third year of the program, and the DNR received just $1.5 million.

That meant the program could have died after this year. But the Legislature transferred $616,000 from a venison donation program, and it redirected a $5 surcharge on nonresident hunting licenses to the walk-in program. That money, averaging about $114,000 yearly, had gone to the venison donation program.

Income for the venison program, which pays meat processors to process donated deer, well exceeded expenditures. The venison is then donated to food shelves.

Also part of the legislation, when resident small game and deer hunters buy their licenses, they will be asked if they want to contribute $1, $3 or $5 to the walk-in program. (Deer hunters had been asked if they wanted to donate to the venison program. The request for donations from small game hunters is new.)

Hunters donated about $19,000 last year, but officials are hoping more hunters will donate to the walk-in access program.

Wolf hunt comments

About 1,200 people have commented on the DNR's website on the state's planned wolf hunting and trapping season this fall. "We expected a lot of comments, and this is a lot," said Kathy DonCarlos, DNR deputy director. Instead of holding public meetings, the DNR is taking public comments on its plan through June 20 on the agency's website (www.mndnr.gov/wolves).

Officials said earlier that they chose the online approach because they had to act quickly to establish the first season. "We think this is more opportunity for public input," DonCarlos said.

Wisconsin officials are holding public meetings this month on their plans for a wolf season (see my blog at startribune.com/outdoors).

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com