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Scott M

N.D. Hunting Lands dissappearing - Article

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by Chris Niskanen, St. Paul Pioneer Press

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — At first I thought we were lost.

With map in hand, I was giving a friend directions to a piece of private land opened to hunters under North Dakota's Private Lands Open To Sportsmen (PLOTS) program. We were hunting sharp-tailed grouse near Jamestown last week, and the detailed PLOTS booklet in my lap showed we should be driving past an accessible piece of land listed on the map.

But the telltale triangular PLOTS signs were missing, and the field was planted with corn.

"Another one bites the dust," I said of the hunting area.

It was obvious the landowner decided not to renew his PLOTS contract and saw a better deal by planting a crop in his field. During three days of hunting in North Dakota, it was one of many PLOTS fields I noticed have disappeared in North Dakota, one of the most popular destinations for Minnesota sportsmen.

Moreover, I remembered the same field used to be planted in grass under the Conservation Reserve Program, so not only was the 300 acres no longer open to hunting, but any habitat benefits for pheasants or ducks disappeared when the plow hit the ground.

Nonresident hunters visiting North Dakota might find a lot of their favorite hunting areas are AWOL this year.

"It's been a race by landowners to get the (PLOTS) signs down,'' said Randy Kreil, wildlife division chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. In other words, some landowners are bailing on the PLOTS program as soon as they can.

Last

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fall, the North Dakota wildlife agency hit its benchmark of enrolling 1 million acres into the PLOTS program, which pays landowners a small fee to open their land to hunters. A similar program in South Dakota is called the Walk-In Program. Efforts to get such a program off the ground in Minnesota have failed repeatedly.

Kreil said the state has lost about 30,000 acres of PLOTS since last year, but the number appears far larger than that. Of the 1 million acres in PLOTS, about 400,000 acres were enrolled in the federal CRP program, which in North Dakota is being gutted by high commodity prices and low federal rental rates for landowners. Many of the highest quality PLOTS land for bird hunting were also CRP acres. Last year, North Dakota lost more than 400,000 acres of CRP.

CRP losses so far "are just the beginning," Kreil said. Before last year, North Dakota had 3.2 million acres of CRP, but the current forecast calls for the state to lose another 1 million acres by 2012. "Last year's losses don't seem so bad, compared to what the dramatic changes you see coming down the road," Kreil said.

Anyone who has hunted North Dakota in recent years knows how valuable the PLOTS program is.

Granted, not all PLOTS acres provided the best hunting habitat, in my experience, but these areas provided access to private lands and alleviated hunting pressure on state and federal lands. The PLOTS guide booklet, available at retail outlets throughout the state, is an invaluable resource to finding these lands, but this year's guide warns hunters to do more "preseason homework than previous years" because PLOTS lands are disappearing.

Don't expect this year's booklet to accurately reflect the changes, either. Kreil said many landowners were dropping out of the program as the booklet was being printed. I found last week that many tracts were listed in the map, but the roadside PLOTS signs were gone and the land wasn't accessible any longer.

You'll find other changes as well. Because of a drought in North Dakota, many landowners hayed their PLOTS and CRP lands, resulting in a poor habitat for fall hunting.

Drought conditions also are plaguing many wetlands in North Dakota. Some shallow potholes are dry, while deeper ones have pulled far away from the shoreline.

Kreil said North Dakota has been attracting far fewer waterfowl hunters than in past years, and with the drought, loss of PLOTS lands and high gas prices, he predicts even fewer nonresidents will be hunting North Dakota this year.

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Trickle down effects of energy policy? Free markets play to the needs of the many (general public) and not the wants of the few (hunters), but in this case the markets are artificially inflated!

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