WILLMAR — If you’re planning to scout public lands for your spring turkey hunt, you might want to put some Walk-In Access lands on your checklist.
Often thought of as primarily for pheasant hunting, Walk-In Access lands are playing an increasingly larger role in providing hunter access to more opportunities.
As privately owned lands, Walk-In Access sites can sometimes offer a mix of habitats with an agricultural component that make them ideal grounds for turkey.
Hunters have told John Maile, who is the coordinator for the Walk-In Access program for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, that there are cases where these lands offer better hunting opportunities than the Wildlife Management Areas they sometimes border, thanks to the mix of habitat types.
Don’t overlook Walk-In Access lands when looking for hunting opportunities is also the advice of Eran Sandquist, Minnesota coordinator, Pheasants Forever. “There are some hidden gems out there in some agricultural areas,” he told the Tribune.
Launched in 2011, the state’s WIA began with about 9,100 acres in nine counties in the southwestern corner of the state.
“It wasn’t explicitly stated, but everyone kind of understood it as a pheasant program,” said Greg Hoch, wildlife prairie team leader with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
As the program has expanded to include more counties north and east, hunting opportunities have increased in diversity. “We’ve really been excited to see over the years the amount of turkey, waterfowl and deer hunting that we’ve seen on these lands,” said Hoch.
Today, there are more than 29,000 acres enrolled in the Walk-In Access program in 47 counties.
Hoch said the goal is to eventually enroll around 40,000 acres in the program. The intent is to expand the program both north and east. He said they’d like to see the counties bordering the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers part of the program.
The program recently added Hubbard County this year. A new site near Bemidji should offer some fabulous waterfowl and deer hunting opportunities, said Maile.
He said much of his attention is focused on including more lands in the agriculture-to-forest transition zone in the state.
Hunters gain access to the nearly 30,000 acres available in the program for the cost of a $3 validation on their small game or other hunting license. Last year, 30,627 validations were sold, down slightly from 30,925 in the prior year.
“That’s a pretty good bang for your buck,” said Hoch of the $3 validation fee. Hunters also have the option of a $5 contribution in place of the $3 fee.
Landowners are compensated at a flat rate of $18 an acre for enrolling lands in the program. Most of the lands are conservation lands.
Once land is enrolled, the program takes responsibility for legally posting signs delineating the property.
Last year, there were 251 contracts for the lands enrolled in the program. Maile said the program has generally gone well with landowners. He’s not had any landowners pull land out of the program because of problems.
As the name makes clear, the lands are to be accessed only by foot. Hunters cannot use horses or drive ATV’s when hunting them.
The majority of funding for the program is provided through the National Resources and Conservation Service as part of the Conservation title of the farm bill. Hoch said they are optimistic that the program will continue to enjoy support in Congress in future farm bills.
He likes to say it is a program that fires on all cylinders. It provides hunter access, keeps lands in private ownership and helps promote conservation.
It’s certainly another tool in the conservation tool box, according to Sandquist. “There are a lot of landowners who have seen this as a great tool to not only protect wildlife habitat, but to allow the public to enjoy it,” he said.
Its start in the state’s heavy agricultural counties provides public access in an area of the state where there is otherwise limited public lands.
Maile said the program complements the hunter access that the state’s system of Wildlife Management Areas and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Waterfowl Production Areas provide.
He noted that the Walk-In Access lands can be especially valuable during busy times of the hunting season. He knows of hunters who intended to walk a specific WMA on a Saturday morning, only to arrive and find a couple of vehicles belonging to parties already walking it. They’ve moved on down the road to a Walk-In Access site and had it to themselves. “It’s a really nice pressure valve in those situations,” said Hoch.
Minnesota is fortunate for the public lands it protects. Hoch said we have one of the premier Wildlife Management systems dedicated to wildlife in the Midwest, if not the nation.
“No way, is the Walk-In Access replacing in any shape or form our public land system, but it sure does complement and add to the public land system,” he said.
Landowner enrollment in the system is currently open from Feb.15 through April 15. Those interested in enrolling lands are encouraged to visit their county’s Soil and Water Conservation District office to learn about the program and options available to them.
For hunters, the Walk-In Access lands are open from Sept. 1 through May 29. Hoch said there is also some discussion about changing the statute for the program to allow non-consumptive activities, such as bird watching or photography, on the lands. Currently, the statute allows the use of the lands only for hunting.