Farmland conservation crucial to success in hunting seasons
By Darrin Cline
While the cool winter weather may drive most people indoors, December's chilly mornings and frosted landscapes created a paradise for hunters across the Midwest. Motivated by the annual whitetail deer seasons, the allure of bagging "the big one" drew hunters to the rural countryside.
The role of farmlands in the perennial hunting tradition remains a keystone component. An increase in hunting programs and incentives for landowners has worked to improve both the relationship between hunters and farmers, as well as habitat.
As snow and cold blanket the Midwest, one of the most important contributions farmers can make to wildlife is the use of cover crops and feed plots. Terry Haindfield, Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist, points out a number of viable crops and strategies that farmers can implement when deciding to leave these plots.
"If at all possible, we'd like to encourage people with corn to leave four- to five-acre blocks; that not only serves as a food source but also a cover," Haindfeld said, pointing out that narrow strips on the edge of fields do help, but may not provide the ample cover of blocks.
According to Haindfield, deer will also paw down for alfalfa and sorghum, and the more variety of crops and nutrients farms leave for wildlife, the better they will do.
Haindfield works a great deal with pheasants, a wildlife population he hopes to see rebound. A mild winter and good nesting spring helped the population rebound this past year. However, Haindfield points out that pheasants need more available habitat and reduced exposure to halt the declining populations.
Along with many conservation and habitat regrowth acts, walk-in access programs have also helped strengthen the relationship between farmers and hunters. The objective is to provide payment incentives to farmers who allow public-access hunting on their enrolled lands.
"What the access program does is that it ties in state dollars with some national dollars and it basically pays for habitat work to take place on a property. In exchange for that, the owner allows that land to be open for public hunting," said Brian Sauer, who helps farmers and landowners get started in the Iowa program, known as the Iowa Habitat and Access Program, or IHAP.
Public access plans are available across the country and may show some variances depending on state. Walk-In Hunting Access, or WIHA, as the program is known in Kansas, was started in 1995. According to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, WIHA had enrolled one million acres by 2004. Lands in the WIHA program can either be Conservation Reserve Program land, native rangeland, wheat or milo stubble or wetlands.
While states across the Midwest vary on their enrollments and qualifications, Sauer points out that Iowa saw a large interest in the program while surveying hunters and fishermen. Since then, they have diligently worked to increase the prevalence of public hunting acres. According to the DNR, Iowa has about 7,000 acres in the program.
"We take applications and there is a whole list of factors to look at; once the acres are selected, we identify them and treat them similar to wildlife management areas," Sauer said. "They are walk in-access only--no vehicles are allowed, no tree stands. We just ask all hunters to respect the property because it still is private property."
Signs recognizing walk-in public access areas are posted on all enrolled acres, and maps are available through state wildlife organizations.
With the wide range of incentives and programs blossoming for farmers, both Haindfield and Sauer see potential for increased conservation efforts.
"I see a lot of conservation-minded farmers putting cover crops down in the late fall after harvest, not only for soil and water conservation, but also it provides extra food sources. I'm encouraged by those farmers adding that practice to their operations," Haindfeld said.
In addition to the hunting programs and cropland improvement efforts, forest management is also an area in which Haindfield sees a bright future. By reinvesting in future forest acres and creating hardy stands, landowners can provide adequate habitat and food sources for game.
Hunting, from archery to shotgun seasons, will continue across the Midwest through the winter as wildlife enthusiasts aim to capitalize on the variety of game. The cohesive relationships between hunters and farmers, and interplay of neighboring croplands, forests and prairielands are crucial to the preservation and longevity of both institutions.