For Minnesota pheasant aficionados, the state’s hunter walk-in access program has been a godsend, providing nearly 23,000 acres of private land to hunt in 31 counties.
But since the program began in 2011, it’s been on shaky financial ground.
Now that ground is a little firmer after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week Minnesota will receive $1.6 million over the next three years to continue the program — and add another 8,000 acres. Most of the money will be used to pay landowners to allow public hunting on their property.
“I’m absolutely thrilled,’’ said Kevin Auslund of Eden Prairie, a pheasant hunter, outdoors activist and walk-in program supporter. “With corn and soybeans gobbling up the landscape, and CRP grasslands disappearing, we’ll take anything we can get.”
Auslund said he often hunts the walk-in lands. “They’re some of the highest-quality pheasant hunting lands in the state,’’ he said.
The money is part of $20 million from the 2014 Farm Bill that will go to Minnesota and 14 other states to improve and increase wildlife habitat and public access on privately owned lands. For Minnesota, it was a program saver. It was set to run out of money next spring.
“The program could have died,’’ said Craig Hoch, DNR prairie habitat team supervisor. “This gives us at least another three years.’’
The grant also gives the state something it’s never had: $375,000 specifically pegged to improve wildlife habitat on lands enrolled in the program.
“It could be removing old dead trees, or burning grasslands or increasing wildflowers,’’ Hoch said. “We have funds to do habitat work on public lands, but there’s’ not a lot of funding sources for habitat improvement on private lands. We’re hoping this will be a shot in the arm.’’
Also included is money for the University of Minnesota to survey landowner and hunter interest and participation in the program.
But future funding remains a key concern.
Minnesota competed with other states to get the federal grant money, and Hoch said it really needs steady, reliable funding. Currently, hunters pay $3 for a validation allowing them to hunt the 200 parcels of walk-in lands, but that raises only $45,000. A surcharge on nonresident hunting licenses raises another $100,000. And the DNR asks license buyers if they want to contribute $1, $3 or $5 to the program. Last year, $21,804 was donated.
That only about 15,000 of the state’s 70,000 pheasant hunters buy the $3 validation is a concern. And it’s unknown how much more hunters would be willing to pay to access those lands.
Auslund says the DNR should consider raising the $7.50 pheasant stamp fee and using the extra money for the walk-in program. “Three dollars [for the validation] isn’t going to fund it,’’ he said.
“Most of your walk-in users are pheasant hunters, so why not pump this up and have all pheasant hunters contribute?’’ Auslund said.
Currently, landowners are paid $10 per acre to enroll their lands. Bonuses are added if more than 140 contiguous acres are enrolled; if the land is within a half-mile of existing state or federal hunting land; or if a multiyear agreement is signed.
The minimum acreage accepted is 40 acres. Auslund would like to see that changed, so that perhaps smaller acreage put into buffer strips under Gov. Mark Dayton’s initiative could be enrolled.
Auslund, president of Sportsmen Take Action, which supports habitat, access and youth opportunities, has criticized the DNR for allowing landowners to trap on the walk-in lands. He is concerned dogs could be inadvertently injured or killed in traps. He even wrote Dayton, protesting the policy.
But DNR officials said landowners who enroll in the program agree to allow public hunting access, but they don’t give up their other rights to the land. Meaning they can trap, or they can allow others to trap the lands. But lands aren’t open for public trapping.
There have been no reported incidents involving dogs caught in traps on the walk-in lands.
The state’s 1.4 million-acre wildlife management area (WMA) system also is open to public hunting and trapping, DNR officials note. There have been nine dog-trap incidents on WMAs since 2012; officials couldn’t say how many, if any, were fatal.
The walk-in sites are open to any legal hunting season — including doves, deer, turkeys, ducks and pheasants — from Sept. 1 to May 31.