By Nick Simonson
Autumn is always a time of optimism for many hunters as opportunities for excitement abound over the top of each rise and in the shady depths of every creek bottom. Putting the approach of winter aside, fall provides so much in the way of hopefulness in the pursuit of game that it is often hard to prioritize outings, and the shortening days go faster and faster as the season winds down. This year, however, there is even more to be excited about, as numbers across the board for those three things vital to the continued tradition of hunting, sportsmen and their quarries are trending in an upward direction.
With the passage of the most recent Farm Bill and the increase in acres allowed under the legislation’s cap for acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), 2020 saw the influx of applications for the retirement of marginal lands into set-aside programs. While helping operators better manage their acres and avoid wasted inputs like seed and spray, the uptick in lands allowed under the cap will help increase habitat on the landscape, with the phased-in enrollment of up to 27 million acres in the program by 2023. Coupled with growing private lands initiatives and precision agricultural programs by non-government entities like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited that help producers maximize their farmable acres and find state and federal programs for their marginal, riparian and non-grazeable lands, habitat which sustains wildlife throughout the state and the country is once again increasing. This trend helps to provide more carrying capacity for huntable game and non-game species alike, and to buffer against the always-possible inclement winter weather which can be a major negative influence on their numbers.
At the height of its popularity, and the abundance of marginal acres on the landscape, North Dakota’s Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) program had more than 1.1 million acres available to public access in the mid-2000s. Paralleling the rise in CRP enrollments, the access program helped provide more opportunities to hunters throughout the state to get at the habitat that held the game animals they pursued. As CRP trended downward in 2010, so did the access that those enrolled in both the federal program and the state access plan.
Now, however, PLOTS has seen an increase not only in total acres, but also in the quality of land which is opened to hunters. Rarer now is the barren wheat field surrounded by yellow triangles, as agents of the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) strive to ensure a huntable habitat component in their contracts with landowners who grant access. With more than 800,000 acres part of PLOTS this autumn, hunters will find more opportunities and those of better quality on which to venture after pheasants, ducks, deer and other game.
No matter how much grass is in the ground, or how well protected a winter herding area might be, wildlife populations are subject to the whims of mother nature. Whether it’s a cold and snowy winter that impacts survival or a wet and chilly spring that hinders recruitment, there are elements that are beyond the control of man that impact wildlife populations. Thankfully, for much of the state and the region, the winter was generally mild, or at least survivable, and the spring and summer were temperate without too much rain or cold temperatures to inhibit the recruitment of young.
The NDG&F reported upticks across the board for many game species in the state, including a 38 percent increase in pheasant numbers statewide. Larger game like mule deer and pronghorn benefitted from an almost non-existent winter in the west, as their surveyed numbers increased seven and six percent respectively. Whitetail numbers were up as well, resulting in the addition of thousands more licenses for this year’s firearms season, to a recent-high total of more than 69,000 firearms tags. Add in a better breeding season for ducks and more grouse seen on the landscape, and the upward trend for wildlife is becoming clear thanks to a little help from the weather and the increased habitat on the landscape.
The three-legged stool on which the North American model of conservation and the century of hunting heritage sits has stabilized, at least for the time being. With the continuing increase in habitat through federal reserve acres, more and better access for hunters, and some favorable conditions to help with populations of wildlife, the trend is clear. While it may not be “the good ol’ days” that some remember in the first decade of this century, or those farther back in the previous one, the coming together of these elements is a step in the right direction for the future of hunting, be it in the weeks ahead or as a template for the years to come.