Here's a question to ponder across the back fence or over a cup of coffee as all the major hunting seasons except deer gun get into full swing: When it comes to hunting success, what's more important, habitat or access?
On one hand, without a decent habitat base you won't have much wildlife, so incentive for people to buy hunting licenses is low. On the other hand, if there's not a place to hunt, what good are fields full of pheasants or skies dark with ducks?
While these factors are not easily separated from one another, the edge in importance must go to habitat, because without it, the need for access is irrelevant.
Judging from many conversations I’ve had over the last few years, many hunters seem satisfied with North Dakota's combination of habitat, game abundance and access. It's that overall combination and balance of each variable that equates into a hunting community responding "not too bad" when asked how satisfied they are with hunting in general.
Not everyone, of course, is always satisfied, but the state has experienced growth in the number of people buying hunting licenses in recent years, so something positive is taking place.
One of those positive factors is the North Dakota Game and Fish Department'sPrivate Land Open to Sportsmen program, which will again this fall provide about 1 million acres of walk-in public hunting access on private land. Understand the intention of PLOTS was never to provide the main source of access for hunters, but rather to provide supplementary places to hunt for people who arranged for themselves at least some access to private land.
Initially the primary focus of the PLOTS program was Conservation Reserve Program acres, which is also the habitat backbone for many species in the state. Two years ago, North Dakota had about 3.4 million acres of CRP. Since then, nearly 600,000 acres have come out of the program, with additional contracts totaling more than 200,000 acres set to expire this fall.
Some of that CRP land was enrolled in the PLOTS program and some was not. While Game and Fish has been able to enroll enough new tracts to roughly maintain the amount of CRP land in the PLOTS program at around 500,000 acres, the lost CRP outside PLOTS is not going unnoticed by hunters.
Regardless of whether it is open to public access, most CRP land in North Dakota provides a place for people to hunt at one time or another during fall. While not every acre that came out of the CRP is no longer a viable place to hunt, 600,000 fewer acres is, in the short term, probably more noticeable in terms of hunting places lost, than lower pheasant numbers.
With less CRP, pheasants and deer will move to nearby acres where habitat remains. So will hunters, creating more competition for space on public and private land.
That's not to say overall hunting in North Dakota won't be good this year. It's a matter of perspective, as some will readily admit an empty bag or rained out hunt is still better than a day at work.
It's important for hunters to understand the changes occurring on the prairie. CRP will be down, PLOTS stable, ducks up and pheasant numbers lower, but the exact degree will depend on where you hunt. As always, it will be an interesting fall in North Dakota.
Leier is a biologist for the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org