Megan Howell swung the barrel of her Franchi 12-gauge shotgun and squeezed the trigger just in time to keep a flushing rooster from escaping her range.
Howell was hunting in early November near Slayton, Minn., and the fallen pheasant was frosting on the cake for land management work that Howell completed for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in early 2017.
"It's exactly why I got into conservation," Howell said Tuesday.
Employed by Pheasants Forever, the 2014 Iowa State University graduate helped the DNR add the 100-acre site in Murray County to the state's Walk-In Access (WIA) hunting program. After eight years of steady growth, the program is nearing its ultimate goal of opening 30,000 acres of private land for public hunting.
Last year alone, the sites attracted more than 23,500 pheasant, deer, waterfowl, small game and wild turkey hunters. The ongoing challenge for supporters is to keep it funded at a cost that will soon approach $600,000 annually.
Scott Roemhildt, the DNR's grassland programs coordinator, said state officials hope the yet-to-be-decided 2018 federal farm bill will provide key subsidies to keep the program on track. Farm bill payments made the Minnesota program viable in six of its eight years, so far.
Howell, who majored in animal ecology, was elated to harvest her first Minnesota pheasant on such a meaningful site. It motivated her to write a letter circulated recently to DNR officials in St. Paul. The letter thanked them for starting the walk-in program and detailed her sense of accomplishment.
"I marked the spot that [the pheasant] dropped and ran over as fast as I could," Howell wrote. "There I was … after years of working toward my dream of working with pheasant hunting … on the first piece of land that I helped make public."
Chartreuse-colored boundary signs guide WIA program users in 36 Minnesota counties. The signs denote "private land open to public hunting" and warn against the use of motorized vehicles. Designated land is open to hunters from Sept. 1 through May 31, in twilight and daylight.
In the 2011 pilot program, only 21 counties were eligible to participate. Now landowners in 46 counties are invited to join. Ten of those counties are without enrollments.
Landowners whose property is deemed suitable for hunting receive $10 per acre, per year, to open it to hunters. Sign-ups can be for up to three years at a time and bonus payments of $1 per acre apply when the real estate is situated near existing public hunting land or involves a site larger than 140 acres. The WIA payments to landowners are often stacked on top of other land program payments, chiefly for acres enrolled at $100 to $200 per acre in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
On the flip side, hunters pay an annual $3 "validation" fee to the program for access to the sites. The DNR also accepts donations to the program, asking all hunters when they buy a license if they want to donate to WIA. In addition, the program receives $5 from each nonresident hunting license sold in the state.
According to DNR statistics, hunter participation has increased significantly to 2017's mark of 23,557 validations. That's up 60 percent from the level of 14,663 program users in 2014. In all the years, fees and donations from hunters have totaled nearly $400,000.
Besides using farm bill subsidies, the program also has received $431,000 in proceeds from the federal Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Grant Program. Those moneys are derived from excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, archery equipment and arrow components. For the WIA program to be eligible, the state matched the grants with a total of $184,000.
Roemhildt said the DNR's "ongoing hope" is to enroll 30,000 acres and maintain the program at that size. Currently, WIA acres in Minnesota have climbed to about 26,000 acres.
"At 30,000 acres, I think we could do it for as little as $600,000," Roemhildt said. "That would include landowner payments, boundary signing, atlas printing … a coordinator salary" and all other costs.
Randy Kraus has worked with Minnesota's WIA program since the beginning and has probably enrolled more landowners than anyone else. His Soil and Water Conservation District office in Lincoln County has expanded the program to include 44 local landowners and 4,000 acres of huntable property. Nearby Murray County, with 17 enrollees, is the next biggest player.
"We've never really had a complaint that I know of," Kraus said. "The hunters, the landowners, they are all pretty happy with it."
Almost all landowners in Lincoln County have re-enrolled when their WIA contracts expired. And as a testament to the quality of hunting land in the program, at least three Lincoln County participants opted out of WIA when hunters offered to pay them more than $13 an acre to hunt the sites exclusively.
Kraus said a fourth private landowner rejected a similar offer. He told Kraus he believed in the program's mission to support the area's strong cultural heritage of hunting, especially for young people who can't afford their own property.
"This way you have more land to offer," Kraus said.
Howell said she views the walk-in hunting program as a multisided partnership that — at its core — stokes land conservation.
"Hunters are the backbone of conservation,'' she said. "The more people that we can get who are passionate about the outdoors and passionate about hunting the better. We need people out there who care."