A Footrace With Ringnecks

Vast amounts of private acreage are enrolled in both Nebraska's and Kansas' walk-in hunting programs. Here's how those lands can affect your pheasant hunting this month. (Dec 2006)

Nearly 1.2 million acres of private lands in Kansas and Nebraska are open to public hunting through each state's own walk-in hunting program. Kansan Mike Miller bagged this ringneck on land he accessed simply by buying a hunting license.
Photo by Marc Murrell.

As the year winds down, pheasant hunters in Nebraska and Kansas are busy trying to find those pheasants that now have plenty of experience avoiding hunters. Fortunate are the pheasants that managed that feat -- and frozen in plastic wrap are the ones that didn't! Finding the remaining birds can be tough, but there's still plenty of opportunity for some delightful December shoots on these big, gaudy game birds.

Fortunately, a couple of programs administered by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks now give hunters plenty of options as to places to probe for some great late-season ringneck action.

Having been patterned after successful efforts in other states, both programs are similar, involving leases by the government of private land for public access. They differ a bit: Nebraska leases only Conservation Reserve Program land -- cropland prone to heavy erosion that's been returned to native grasses under the 1985 Farm Bill program -- while Kansas, most of whose enrolled tracts are CRP properties, also leases standing wheat and milo stubble, as well as other areas that hold pheasants.

NEBRASKA

Nebraska's access program is called CRP-MAP (Management Access Program). It started in 1997 as a pilot program in 28 of Nebraska's 93 counties.

"There were about 20,000 acres initially," said Scott Taylor, former upland game bird program coordinator for the NGPC and current head of the state's wildlife research section. "We really didn't make an effort to enroll a huge number of acres that first year, as it was just a pilot project."

Landowner interest has grown since the program's inception. "We were up to about 180,000 acres this past year," Taylor said. "We've been fairly stable the last couple of years with about that same amount." That landowners seem overall to be happy with the program is a good thing, since they're the key to making the entire thing work.

"By this time I think everyone is pretty happy with the way things go," added Taylor. "There's always year-to-year problems here and there -- with signage and that kind of thing -- but given the fact that we've been stable at 180,000 acres for several years, that's a good indication things are going pretty well."

Landowners are paid from $1 to $5 per acre of land enrolled, depending on the management option selected. "Included in that cost is not only the access part, but we require some habitat manipulation and improvement on most tracts," Taylor explained.

As has been the case with similar programs across the country, response from hunters has been terrific. "It's one of our most popular hunting programs and you don't really ever hear anything that's negative about it," said Taylor. "It's opened a lot of acres to a lot of folks."

Another benefit of the program is that it spreads out the hunting pressure across the board on tracts available to public access. Taylor pointed out that it has decreased the amount of hunting pressure on state-owned public lands and spread people out.

Residents and non-residents alike benefit from Nebraska's CRP-MAP. "Both have taken advantage of the program," Taylor said. "Residents who have pretty decent private land to hunt still take advantage of the opportunities on those MAP tracts as well."

And non-residents who may not have a lot of private land connections benefit greatly from the program. Time that used to be spent tracking down landowners trying to get permission is now used to hunt these tracts, many of which offer outstanding hunting. But as with everything, Taylor admitted, hunting success depends on the situation.

"It's like any other public land," he said. "The hunting quality depends on the habitat that's there and the hunting pressure it receives. Those places that may be a little more out of the way or isolated -- that maybe don't get the hunting pressure that some of the others do -- can be excellent."

Taylor's experiences of hunting some of these tracts in the past have borne that out. "I've definitely had some excellent hunts on CRP-MAP," he said. "My experiences have been pretty good. Not always -- but generally."

Those who pursue upland bird species other than pheasants benefit from the program too, Taylor noted. "We have a permit-only hunting season in eastern Nebraska on prairie chickens," he said, "and I'd say the majority of hunters who hold those permits end up hunting on CRP-MAP tracts in the southeast, because that's where they find good numbers of birds."

Obviously, the hunting is good on these tracts of lands early in the upland bird season, but Taylor asserts that it can be just as good throughout the season. For many reasons, weather plays an important part in determining the success of hunts. Often it's just a matter of the timing of a trip coinciding helpfully -- or not -- with Mother Nature's schedule.

"They vary so widely in types of cover that are there," Taylor offered. "Some of them are just smooth brome, which I wouldn't hunt after a snowfall, generally. But some of the warm-season stands do offer better late-season cover.

"Some of the tracts are relatively young CRP tracts, so they still have that annual weed component that's fairly prevalent, and those may hold up better later in the season as well. It varies tract by tract as to what habitat is there and what's around it."

The pressure on these tracts follows the usual patterns, according to Taylor. "Those trends in pressure follow the general trends in the hunting season," he said. "It's heavy the first few weeks, and then it tapers off, picking up around the holidays and then right at the end of the season."

Hunters should if possible avoid the first few weeks of the season, Taylor suggested, and particularly the holidays and weekends. He added that the size of tracts varies, and that variation can dictate how they're hunted. "A lot of these areas are big enough to accommodate a bigger group of folks. But, certainly, one or two hunters can have a good hunt as well."

Preserving the hunting heritage might be one of the biggest ad

vantages to a program like this. Many studies and surveys show that lack of access to hunting areas is a major reason cited by some individuals to explain why they don't hunt any more.

"That's one of the main goals," Taylor said of the program's initiatives. "To the extent that hunting access is keeping people from hunting, or discouraging people from hunting, I think they certainly help."

Another direct benefit of CRP, in addition to the fact that some of these areas are leased for public hunting, is that the program provides habitat that might not otherwise be available to pheasants. More habitat typically means more pheasants.

"It may not be true everywhere for every tract," Taylor said, "but by and large it's safe to say we have more pheasants with CRP than we had without it -- at least in this current form."

Nebraska hunters have done well with harvesting pheasants in past seasons. Figures from 2004 show them killing just over 400,000 pheasants. "In general, the last few years we've had some pretty decent hunting," said Taylor. "Not fantastic -- we're still below our long-term average. By and large we've had some good habitat conditions, and had opportunities for some good hunting."

Not all CRP land is open to public hunting, obviously. The acres that landowners have enrolled are marked with signs indicating that they're open to public hunting. And the tracts enrolled follow the densities of CRP in the state, too.

"They are statewide," Taylor said of the tracts. "There's quite a bit of CRP in the northeast and quite a bit in the southeast and southwest, and that's where we tend to find most of the tracts."

The NGPC publishes a county-by-county atlas of tracts of CRP enrolled in the program. These are available through various commission offices as well as via the Internet on the state's Web site, www.ngpc.state. ne.us. Taylor cautions that the tracts may change from year to year, so hunters are advised to check current listings each fall before making a trip or hunting on particular tracts that might have been hunted in seasons past.

Those availing themselves of the CRP-MAP tracts must have a valid Nebraska hunting license, if required by law. There's no additional fee required to hunt these areas.

KANSAS

The Kansas program is called the Walk-In Hunting Area program. Much as was done in Nebraska, a pilot program was launched in south-central Kansas with 10,000 acres signed up in 1995, the first year of WIHA.

"Last year we had a little over 1 million acres," said Brad Simpson, private lands coordinator for the KDWP. "It's been extremely popular."

According to Simpson, landowner willingness to lease out land is what underpins the program's success. He adds that many landowners who take part in the program have done so on a regular basis over the years. "I don't have the exact percentage of repeat sign-ups," he said, "but I know from talking to our biologists that we've got quite a few landowners who have been involved since the program's inception."

The Kansas program has gone really well overall, and, Simpson reported, relatively few problems have cropped up with regard to any aspect of WIHA. "Obviously, there are going to be some people that aren't satisfied," he remarked, "but for the most part the landowners have been extremely satisfied, and that's what our surveys have shown."

The average lease price per acre for the fall program is $1.25. The interest to add more land is there, and up until last year the state could fund the program, with most of the money coming from a federal grant.

"Last year was the first year that we had more land offered than we had money," Simpson said. "We actually had to turn people away last year. But this year we got a $300,000 budget enhancement, so we should be able to pick up more acres."

Most of the land enrolled in the public-access program lies in the western part of the state, as one might expect, since that's where most of Kansas' CRP tracts are located. "We have 800,000 acres in the western one-half of the state," Simpson said.

The program initially started out specifically targeting upland bird hunters, and marvelous hunting for pheasants, quail and prairie chickens can be had on enrolled acres. But the focus has expanded a bit over the last decade. "Now it's open for any legal species (except for firearms deer hunting in some instances) during that contract period," Simpson said.

Simpson believes that both resident and non-resident hunters benefit from this program. As far as the percentages for pheasant hunting, he said that about 60 percent of non-residents used WIHA, compared to about 55 percent of resident hunters.

"It's probably more so for residents now than it was initially, because more land is being tied up in leases by guides and outfitters or private individuals." Simpson said. "And non-residents can come to the state and have 1 million acres of WIHA plus the other public areas available, so they don't have to spend time contacting landowners looking for a place to hunt."

Not only is Simpson high on the program from a professional standpoint, but, he feels, he personally benefits from it as well. He's somewhat new to the area of Kansas that he's currently living in, so WIHA acres have opened up more hunting opportunities for him that he might otherwise have been able to arrange. "My experiences have been exceptional," he offered. "I enjoy hunting them."

Simpson follows his own advice and skips opening weekend at these areas, many of which, understandably, feel substantial hunting pressure then. He also avoids the peaks of Thanksgiving and Christmas. He noted that extreme late season also sees an increase in activity. Also, he passes on weekend hunts as much as he can.

Time and time again, he's proved one notion to be thoroughly mistaken. "I think some people think they've got to have 15 or 20 guys to hunt some of these areas because they're so big," Simpson said. "They pull up to a quarter- or half-section of grass (160 and 320 acres, respectively), and they think there's no way they can hunt that by themselves. But you can, either by yourself or with one or two hunting partners."

And, he believes, big groups like that are at a disadvantage as the season rolls on, owing to the noise they make. "Those birds get smart," he said. "Sometimes I go by myself and take my dogs (Labrador retrievers). I'm quiet, and I don't work them up and back -- I just follow my dogs. And I usually have a successful hunt."

Since Simpson is a wildlife biologist, he looks at these tracts of grass in terms of the habitat that they can provide, and plans or hunts accordingly. He takes mental notes as he goes.

"A lot of people think that CRP is just a monoculture of grass," he observed, "but after a couple of flushes you can get the feeling where the birds are at. If they flush in a s

pot that's a low area, or has some different grasses, I'll pay attention to that -- and I might try to steer the dogs that way."

In Simpson's view, enhancements to access like the WIHA program help maintain the hunting tradition in the Sunflower State. "I think the decline in license sales isn't as marked as those states without these types of programs," he stated. "I think it's had an impact in Kansas."

Both CRP and the WIHA program are beneficial to pheasant populations, Simpson asserted. "The WIHA program itself is an access program, but when you combine that with our habitat enhancement program, it's had a positive impact on pheasant populations."

A Kansas hunting license, if required by law, is all that's needed to hunt these WIHA tracts of land. An atlas is available each fall from regional or state park offices of the KDWP. The information can be downloaded via the state's Web site, www.kdwp.state.ks.us.

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