This fall, 760,000 acres are available in the PLOTS program, down from a peak of about 1.1 million acres from 2008-10. About half of that was high-quality CRP habitat. That number is closer to 250,000 CRP acres in PLOTS today.
There is still a lot of interest in PLOTS from producers, and Game and Fish could readily add more non-CRP acres to the program, but the trade-off would often be accepting a tract with less habitat, in a part of the state with fewer options for multiple species.
As CRP contracts expire, producers are faced with options to re-enroll land back into CRP, or return to active crop production. In most cases, the financial decision is simple, as CRP rental payments don’t compete with cash rents in today’s agricultural world. In other cases, many producers have tried to enroll or re-enroll CRP in two open signups in the past two years, but were not accepted. It’s important to understand the circumstances that landowners face.
If all current CRP contracts in North Dakota are left to expire, and no new acres are enrolled over the next five years, the state will have fewer than 1 million acres in CRP on opening day of pheasant season in 2018. In a worst case scenario, the number of acres enrolled in PLOTS could fall to around 200,000 by that time. That may seem like a startling prediction, but hunters need to be aware that this landscape change in North Dakota is the most dramatic since the arrival of the first settlers and their horse-drawn plows.
Expectations, PLOTS Priorities
The Department’s PLOTS program has been around since the late 1990s, and most hunters are familiar with the triangular yellow signs. They expect at least some good habitat on these areas when they arrive to hunt. If the current trend continues, the PLOTS program will not be able to sustain the quality habitat the hunting public demands.
PLOTS originally came along in response to CRP and the pheasant population increase that followed. As CRP acreage expanded, so did PLOTS acreage. Over time, the program branched out into other parts of the state that were not traditional pheasant country.
PLOTS tracts eventually included badlands, crop fields for waterfowl hunting, and woody draws and native pastures for white-tailed deer and sharp-tailed grouse. Hunters liked all these options, but the priority of the PLOTS program has always been CRP acres and pheasant hunting opportunities in North Dakota’s primary pheasant range.
Department surveys show that pheasants are still the most sought after species on PLOTS. If tougher times are coming over the next five years, and the PLOTS program is to maintain quality pheasant hunting, Game and Fish, in conjunction with state hunters, may have to make choices about where to direct existing funds.
For instance, should Game and Fish reduce PLOTS funding from parts of the state where pheasants are not a primary species, to provide more funding to secure more CRP tracts or other habitat in the main pheasant range?
Put another way, as a hunter, would you rather have 250,000 PLOTS acres, all tied to good quality CRP habitat in the pheasant range, or 1 million PLOTS acres distributed around the state that provide access, but not the same type of quality hunting prospects?
Surveys point to loss of access as one of the key reasons that hunters drop from the ranks. While Game and Fish has always encouraged hunters to develop contact with private landowners and not rely solely on PLOTS acres, we know that most hunters find themselves on PLOTS tracts one or more times in a given fall.
While the access is important, the quality of those acres must be good enough so that the hunting public will continue its support.
North Dakota is at a crossroads with habitat changes, but there are still opportunities to address the problem, but it will take money, time and energy from hunters to do so.
Now more than ever, hunters need to rise to the occasion and help protect the things we enjoy.
KEVIN KADING is the Game and Fish Department’s private land section leader.
PLOTS Guide Available Online
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s Private Land Open To Sportsmen Guide for 2013 is available online at the Department’s website, gf.nd.gov. In addition, PLOTS Guides are available at most license vendors throughout the state.
The guide will feature about 760,000 PLOTS acres. Because the guide is printed in mid-August, some PLOTS tracts highlighted in the guide may have been removed from the program since the time of printing. There will also be some PLOTS tracts where the habitat and condition of the tract will have changed significantly. Conversely, Game and Fish may have added new tracts to the program after the guide went to press.
To minimize possible confusion, Game and Fish will update PLOTS map sheets weekly on its website.
The PLOTS Guide features maps highlighting these walk-in areas, identified in the field by inverted triangular yellow signs, as well as other public lands.
In addition, a one-page advertisement announces a photo contest for the cover of the 2014 PLOTS Guide. For more information on the contest, see the Buffaloberry Patch section in this magazine.
PLOTS Guides are free, and available at county auditor offices and license vendors in the state; by walk-in at the Game and Fish Department’s Bismarck office; and at district offices in Riverdale, Harvey (Lonetree), Williston, Dickinson, Jamestown and Devils Lake.