The brown Labrador retriever was on the left, locked tight to a snarl of big-bluestem grass, nose inching ever so slowly toward something. The German shorthair was on the right, just as steady, tail twitching a bit, eyes focused on her own clump of grass.
For this second, there was a sudden lull in what had been a frenzy of puffing hunters and galloping dogs and whistles and beepers. This pheasant hunt had come to a dead stop.
About the Walk-In Access Program
To legally hunt on Minnesota's Walk-In Access lands, you must buy a $3 validation for your hunting license, a new requirement for 2013. Find WIA locations and detailed maps on the DNR website. In the field, look for bright yellow-green hexagonal signs marking each parcel. The signs can be clearly seen from the road.
WIA lands are open Sept. 1 through May 31 for all kinds of hunting, including pheasant, deer, dove, turkey, and waterfowl. Only walk-in hunting is allowed—no vehicles, target practice, trapping, dog training, camping, horseback riding, or fires.
Landowners interested in enrolling in the 2014 WIA program should contact their local Soil and Water Conservation District office.
"Well, go get it. Get it up, Bigsby," I said to the Lab, encouraging him with a light tap of boot to his rear.
In an instant both dogs moved in the last six inches, and two pheasants exploded into the air. The dogs lunged. The birds struggled for distance. Two hunters raised their guns but stopped short of firing. It would have been the perfect scenario—except both birds were hens and not the gaudy roosters we were after.
"At least it was fun to watch," said Jeff Davis, president of the Buffalo Ridge Chapter of Pheasants Forever and owner of the German shorthair.
"At least we know there are pheasant on this piece of land," I added.
Open to Hunt.
Finding an accessible place that holds game birds has been getting harder across much of western Minnesota. Fewer swamps and grassy areas remain. And those spots on private land are often posted with "No Trespassing" signs.
The private land we hunted in Lincoln County in southwestern Minnesota was owned by a farmer who had agreed to let hunters—any hunters, not just us—tromp around some of his fields. In exchange for walk-in hunter access, the Department of Natural Resources pays him $10 to $13 per acre annually. We didn't even need to ask the farmer's permission, but we knew we were hunting in the right place. Bright yellow-green hexagonal Walk-In Access signs marked the field along the county road.
Minnesota's walk-in program opens private acres for hunting pheasant and other game, including deer, doves, and waterfowl. It started in 2011 with 90 landowners and 9,000 acres. Those numbers shot up in 2012, with 140 landowners in 21 southwestern counties signing up 15,000 acres.
This year 180 landowners in 28 counties participated in the DNR program, enrolling 20,000 acres of private land that is now open to the public.
Walk-In Access is a head-on effort by the DNR to reverse what has been a growing problem in recent years: lack of access for many hunters to good wildlife lands, especially in agricultural areas. Unlike many people a generation or two ago, most of us don't have a relative living on a farm where we can hunt. Many former hunters say lack of access is a primary reason they quit hunting.
How It Works.
The idea of opening up private farms to the public isn't new. South Dakota has had its Walk-In Area program for 25 years, with more than 1.25 million acres enrolled last year. In North Dakota the yellow triangle signs for Private Land Open to Sportsmen—PLOTS—identified about 850,000 acres of private land open for hunting last year. The concept first surfaced in Minnesota in 1998, although it didn't gain momentum until 2010 when Minnesota lawmakers held hearings on the idea and when the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Voluntary Public Access Program offered to foot the bill for a pilot program.
In 2011 the DNR hired Marybeth Block to run the new program and, with the help of Soil and Water Conservation District staff at the county level, contracted with the state Board of Water and Soil Resources to find willing landowners. That fall, hunters were chasing birds on Minnesota WIA parcels for the first time. The first season went well, by just about everyone's account.
Not all land qualifies. Farmers may enroll only acres that already are part of conservation programs, such as the federal Conservation Reserve Program. This ensures that the land is suitable for hunting, and it helps keep prime wildlife habitat out of farm production and covered with perennial grass.
The expansion into more counties progressed slowly through this past spring. The DNR hoped to grow the program to 25,000 acres this fall, but actual enrollment fell 5,000 acres short of that goal.
"We still have our participants from the multiyear contracts. But interest among new enrollees in the new areas has been lukewarm at best," Block said. "There is a lot of land coming out of conservation now, and a lot of those farmers who have kept it want to use it for their own hunting."
The program will remain funded at least through 2016. The next challenge is finding long-term funding, says DNR wildlife habitat program manager Bob Welsh.
Where the Birds Are.
On our hunting day together, Davis and I tried a half-dozen walk-in areas. We had mixed success, though all of those lands held some pheasants, and most held thick stands of vegetation. We managed to bag a few roosters.
Davis, who works in the agricultural industry and knows many farmers, has seen higher corn prices spur a change on the landscape, with farmers lured out of conservation programs by newfound profits in corn.
"You can't blame them for wanting to make money," Davis said. "But the downside of high-priced corn is that the private-land wildlife habitat is just getting hammered. The grass is getting plowed under so they can plant more corn." But he added, "There are still farmers and landowners out there who will keep some land in grass. The Walk-In Access program just gives them a little more incentive to do it."
"Most people out here are pretty accepting of the idea of giving people a place to hunt," Davis said. "But you need to do it so that the landowners will buy in."
Privilege for All.
Bernard "Bernie" Aronson was one of the first to sign on for the Walk-In Access program in 2011. He lives on land his family homesteaded in Lincoln County in 1881. Aronson has set aside land in CRP for 15 years, earning $80 to $90 per acre from the federal government each year. He earns an extra $10 for each of the 57 acres he's enrolled in the walk-in program.
"Nobody does it to get rich. But it's a couple extra bucks and a chance to help some folks get out and hunt," said Aronson, a bachelor farmer who's slowly moving toward retirement. He has an artificial hip and bad knees, so he doesn't hunt anymore. But Aronson still understands that wildlife and the land benefit from not having every acre under the plow. "I like to see wildlife. I've got deer, turkey, pheasants. … I still enjoy that."
Aronson's walk-in land is adjacent to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service waterfowl production area, more land that's open to public hunting. That's one of the factors the DNR looks for when enrolling land—increasing contiguous acres of wildlife habitat and hunter opportunity.
The Walk-In Access program "gives people an opportunity to use the land … hunters who can't afford to join a club or buy their own land," Aronson said. "Hunting shouldn't be a privilege just for the rich guys."
Mavis Bruening agrees. She farms 160 acres just south of Ivanhoe. She's enrolled 68 acres of her CRP land in the Walk-In Access program. The two parcels are thick with grass. In years with good rainfall, several small wetlands teem with wildlife such as deer, songbirds, waterfowl, and pheasants. This is family land where generations have farmed and hunted.
"It's important to me. It's my ground. My grandpa would hunt with us, and we loved it," she said. "I get a kick out of seeing people enjoying it."
Apparently, a lot of us have been enjoying hunts on walk-in lands. While the DNR has had no way to track exactly how many hunters use these areas, reports from DNR conservation officers and farmers suggest use was high during the past two hunting seasons. Because her farm is on a highway, Bruening's walk-in fields have been busy with hunters, especially on weekends.
"Sometimes one group pulls up, and there's still another group out in the field. They have to take turns," she said.
Will walk-in access be popular enough to last? There's no question about its appeal to people who have hunted these lands.
Cover Is Key.
On a late October day, parts of Lincoln County looked pretty bleak. Mostly plowed, bare, black soil stretched to the horizon. Smoke plumes wafted up from drought-dry cattail swamps being burned to make way for more corn. Backhoes were digging in fields next to trucks carrying long sections of plastic pipe called drain tile. The tile would be buried underground to funnel water off the fields where wetlands once stood—more room for corn, less for wildlife.
To a pheasant, or a pheasant hunter, it wasn't a pretty picture. But along a blacktop highway was a field that would not be burned or tiled or plowed anytime soon. I was back on Bernie Aronson's hunting grounds. Here, sturdy grass and a cattail slough shelter pheasants from predators and harsh weather.
I'd asked along Dave Taylor of Marshall for this hunt, and he brought his black Lab, Molly. A retired teacher, Taylor hunts on weekdays when fewer hunters are afield. Now, in addition to state wildlife management areas and federal waterfowl production areas, he had walk-in areas to try.
"The key is the cover; that's where the birds are. They need habitat. … Look for the ones off the busiest roads so they don't get hit so hard by so many hunters," Taylor said. "These new walk-in areas are going to provide more options."
Taylor and I let loose our Labs, zipped up our coats, and headed into a cold wind. Before long, the dogs began zigzagging on a scent. Sure enough, two roosters took flight about 100 yards ahead of us. But they didn't go far and soon landed. Taylor's dog followed a scent to the left, mine to the right, and we started to move apart across the field.
"This is looking pretty good," Taylor said before fading out of earshot, shotgun at the ready, following his dog.
"Sure is," I said, mostly to myself, trying to keep track of my dog in the tall grass. "Thanks, Bernie."