By Nick Simonson
The North Dakota Game & Fish Department’s (NDG&F) Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) program has regained an important benchmark in its efforts to open access to high-quality habitat for hunters each fall, as this year, according to Kevin Kading, NDG&F Private Lands Section Leader, the program has topped 800,000 acres for the first time in many seasons. Kading also stresses that the quality of those acres enrolled in PLOTS is also up, and many of the additions in 2020 sport brand new plantings of grass and other cover which increases carrying capacity for game species and watchable wildlife in the state.
“We did have an increase – almost 10,000 acres from the fall of 2019 – so it was a nice little jump,” states Kading, “we’re taking a strategic approach in how we’re enrolling lands, we’re trying to enroll higher-quality tracts so the acres that are in that increase are going to be some good acres,” he continued, adding that approximately 4,200 of those added acres were new grass plantings which have added to the state’s overall wildlife habitat and will likely remain there for 10 years or longer.
Reaching a high of approximately 1.1 million acres in the early 2000s at the peak of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), North Dakota’s PLOTS program has provided important access to private lands through operators enrolling their acres with the state. The decrease in CRP acres enrolled on the landscape since 2007 also decreased the number of quality acres available for enrollment in the PLOTS program, and the number of contracts for the state program dropped in correlation. As CRP contracts bottom out and an expansion of the set-aside program ramps back up, with increases planned through 2023, the opportunity for more PLOTS acres grows. In exchange for allowing public access, landowners receive a stipend through PLOTS contracts with the NDG&F. The agency then surveys and installs signage on those parcels which are accepted into the program, marking the boundaries with the yellow triangles that have become familiar to sportsmen over the last two decades.
While the NDG&F tries to target areas of 80 acres or more during the enrollment periods in the winter, spring and summer of each year, PLOTS tracts can vary in size from down around 30 acres, on up into the thousands for those stretches located in the western part of the state. As part of a large PLOTS addition in western North Dakota in the most recent enrollment period, the department worked with non-government organizations on cost sharing efforts for the project. In doing so, a tract of more than 3,000 acres was added to the PLOTS system in western North Dakota for 2020, which also helps to connect other spaces open to public hunting in the area.
“There’s some large tracts in the badlands that people are going to notice this year, in Billings County there was a nice addition that’s going to tie in some other public lands; those are always nice when we can connect some of those existing public lands through the private lands network,” Kading announced, “we do partner with a lot of different groups, and that one was partially sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation,” he added, stressing the connection with sportsman and conservation groups is important in facilitating the enrollment and support of new PLOTS lands.
The 2020 PLOTS guide is available online and a number of digital resources are there for hunters exploring North Dakota’s public lands and those in the program. Sportsmen are encouraged to know the regulations pertaining to the use of the state’s varied public lands and are reminded that while PLOTS acres are open to the public, they remain privately-owned and should be respected as such. More details and the various downloads for today’s field technology including smartphones and GPS units can be found at: https://gf.nd.gov/plots/guide. The annual printed guide will be released shortly and available at license vendors, sporting goods stores, and other locations throughout the state.