By Nick Simonson
From the rush of a buck moving under my perch in the low crook of a large tree along a vast slough, to a covey of sharptailed grouse rising on a grassy hillside, to the excitement of a flushing pheasant breaking its way out of the cane on a mid-December hunt, the countless opportunities experienced on the region’s smallest public lands have made for some of my biggest memories in the field. The outdoor opportunities to be experienced in the area’s network of Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) extend far beyond the chances at ducks and geese for the dedicated waterfowlers chomping at the bit for their openers in the coming weeks. While Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and the assorted private lands open to hunters throughout the upper Midwest are the first destinations that come to mind for many sportsmen, WPAs are parcels which should not be overlooked. While predominantly associated with duck and goose hunting and the requirement of non-toxic shot, WPAs provide other opportunities, including great chances at upland game and deer as well and these squares on the map often signify good habitat to be explored throughout autumn.
Typically consisting of smaller pocket sloughs preserved by outright fee ownership by the federal government, or through leases and easements, WPAs are mostly located throughout Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota and are a part of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (FWS) National Wildlife Refuge Program and have been funded by dollars raised through the annual sales of Duck Stamps. Initially designed to protect the valued pocket waters of the nation’s Prairie Pothole Region which were formed during the recession of glaciers at the end of the last ice age and since then have served as the historical breeding grounds for dozens of duck species, WPAs along with sister lands in the National Wildlife Refuge program account for just under two percent of the acreage in this area of the country. However, these small spaces have a major impact on breeding waterfowl populations, responsible for almost a quarter of the ducks and geese found in the upper Midwest, according to the FWS.
This fact is not a secret to dedicated waterfowl hunters who turn to these areas as autumn sets in to catch birds in migration and find success on the shorelines of these pocket sloughs and the surrounding habitat and fields. Already required to use non-toxic loads in their shotguns for waterfowl, the primary regulation associated with WPAs has little impact on their hunting activity, but often deters sportsmen of other stripes from taking advantage of these opportunities, which due to a few added rules, reduces pressure from upland hunters and big game hunters. But for those in the know and willing to switch over to steel shot, they will find plenty of action on WPAs. Best of all, for deer hunters, lead bullets used for hunting with rifles or muzzleloaders are generally not subject to the non-toxic regulations in place. Beyond the restrictions on shotgun shell type, with a few other rules which are usually posted at prominent entry points or online, most WPAs are governed by the hunting laws of each state during the applicable seasons.
Often found hemmed in by agricultural lands, WPAs provide a sanctuary of sorts for deer, with thick cover in the form of cattails and related wetland vegetation providing the height and density to conceal their movements and many trails leading to and from surrounding farms and open areas lead back to these places where the animals bed. In the late season when these areas ice over, WPAs make for great pheasant hunting with the same deep stretches of cattails providing thermal cover for pheasants and many memorable hunts can be had when the fall’s remaining roosters in an area have congregated in these small spaces.
This season, grab a box of non-toxic shot and make WPAs part of some new hunting adventures and don’t overlook opportunities for big game on these lands as well. Check out the applicable regulations for these parcels at www.fws.gov and on related state agency websites and learn more about the ones located nearby for some great public access hunting. While they may be small, scattered and slightly more restrictive in their rules, these factors are what typically reduce pressure on them and make WPAs some of the best hunting opportunities…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: WPAs protect pocket sloughs to help sustain populations of waterfowl, but these areas also provide other great hunting opportunities with only a few added restrictions, such as non-toxic shot, to keep in mind. Simonson Photo.