A federal Farm Bill grant of $2.5 million has given new life to Minnesota's Walk-in Access hunting program.

Greg Hoch, wildlife prairie team leader for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the money will boost by one-third the amount of private land open to hunters of all kinds as well as other wildlife observers. Of 27 states to request money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for similar programs, Minnesota received the fifth-largest sum behind Nebraska, Virginia, Oregon and Washington.

"This gives hunters more room to roam," Hoch said. "It allows us to expand."

Started in 2011 with 9,100 acres in southwestern Minnesota, the DNR's Walk-in Access program had grown by the end of last year to include 28,000 acres in 47 counties. But the hunting privileges would have expired without an infusion of cash this year to extend the state's agreements with landowners.

Hoch said the new, three-year USDA grant not only sustains existing agreements, but provides money to add another 10,000 acres of public access. Since 2011, the program's enrollment of land has been expanding north and east from the state's southwestern agricultural region. Hoch said the DNR will target land in the southwest and closer to the Twin Cities for many of the new sign-ups.

"If we add one more tier we'll be right up against the metro," Hoch said. "That should give hunters increased access where we have a lot of folks in the state."

Besides providing more opportunities to hunters, Minnesota's Walk-in Access program helps keep good wildlife habitat from being converted to cropland. Hoch said the DNR only considers land worthy of conservation, and grasslands have been the primary cover type.

"In everybody's mind it was seen as a pheasant hunting program," Hoch said.

But the access also is used appropriately for hunting waterfowl, deer, turkey, mourning doves, crows, Virginia snipe, squirrels and rabbits. In last year's application to USDA's Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, the DNR also emphasized that the enrolled acres are open to nature photographers and bird-watchers. Competition between states for the program's total allocation of $50 million ended in November. The largest award was $3 million.

"We ranked relatively high," Hoch said.

Minnesota's grant application noted that the state raises matching dollars from hunters every year. In 2019, 25,280 hunters purchased license validations necessary for them to use the private land. Nonresident hunters pay a $5 surcharge for the privilege. The money is poured into the program. One of the strategies is to enroll high-quality private land that abuts existing wildlife management areas, waterfowl production areas or other public land.

The new grant money should go further in adding huntable acres than it did previously, Hoch said. That's because portions of previous awards were paid to landowners for making habitat improvements. Under the new grant, money will no longer be spent on tree removal projects, prescribed burns, reseeding and other enhancements. Landowners will only receive payment for granting public access and the DNR will continue to work with local soil and water conservation districts to identify wildlife lands that are suitable for hunting.

Hoch said landowners are willing to enroll in this program because hunters have been respectful. Restrictions include no motorized vehicles, target practice, dog training, camping, horseback riding or building fires.

Participating hunters can identify the areas open to them via interactive online maps or a printed atlas supplied by the DNR. In the field, parcels are marked with bright yellow-green boundary signs. Access is open to hunters without requesting permission from landowners, but any licensed trappers who desire access must still get consent from the landowner.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213