February 18, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

We’re building on a generation of hunters who grew up with the Conservation Reserve Program. Just about half of that generation has never known a North Dakota landscape that did not have at least a few fields marked with a triangular yellow Private Land Open to Sportsmen or PLOTS sign encouraging walk-in hunting access.

I’m showing my age, but can it really be more than 20 years since the first acres of CRP were planted and a decade since PLOTS began creating new opportunities for hunters?

Like a lot of programs, CRP and PLOTS started our modestly, went through a period of vigorous growth, leveled off, and now CRP is going the other direction. While something like half of the acres in the PLOTS program are tied to CRP, the Game and Fish Department has been able to maintain its goal of 1 million acres.

At least, that’s where we are at now, headed into the 2008 hunting seasons.

Last year, CRP contracts began expiring on a large scale. In addition, a few hundred landowners canceled newly renewed CRP contracts. Some of these acres were in the PLOTS program, and as the land was prepared in the fall for spring planting, obviously it lost most of its value as a place to hunt. Some hunters wound up at tracts highlighted in the PLOTS guide that were burned, plowed or both.

This was an unfortunate situation in which landowners did pay back any up-front money they had received to enroll the land in PLOTS, but there was no way to let hunters know what was going on after the map guide was printed in mid-August.

This year, much the same thing could happen. North Dakota has about 136,000 CRP acres expiring and any former PLOTS tracts associated with those acres are not highlighted in the 2008 guide. Private land biologists have worked hard to enroll new acres to compensate for those that were not renewed or expired last year or this year.

It is difficult to predict just how much additional conversion will take place. Without digging into all the variables of cropland rental rates, commodity prices and CRP payment rates, some landowners will decide that cancelling a CRP contract makes economic sense.

If that contract involves a PLOTS area, Game and Fish will change the respective map on its website at Hunters who want to make sure a PLOTS area highlighted in the guide is still there, should double-check the map on the website.

While we don’t know how much of this will occur, we do know that North Dakota lost more than 400,000 acres of CRP in 2007. In 2008, 2009 and 2010 combined, another 670,000 acres will expire.

Let’s pull out numbers from just one county as an example. Burleigh County, home to Bismarck, is located in the south central part of the state, and over the last decade has provided good pheasant, waterfowl and deer hunting.

However, Burleigh County lost nearly 32,000 acres of CRP in 2007. That’s more than 39 square miles, or more than a township of CRP gone from the landscape.

In the last year, much has been written about the loss of wildlife habitat associated with expiring CRP. Certainly, over the next few years, pheasant, deer and waterfowl populations will suffer because of this loss.

In addition, whether CRP is in the PLOTS program or not, it provides a place for people to hunt. At present, that loss of a hunting place is probably more noticeable than lower pheasant numbers.

With less CRP, pheasants and deer will move to nearby acres where there is habitat. So will hunters, creating more competition for space on public and private land.

That’s not to say overall hunting in North Dakota won’t be good this year. While pheasant and duck numbers will be down some, they are still riding a high. It’s important for hunters to understand the changes occurring on the landscape, and to adjust expectations accordingly.


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