Drought draining places to hunt
Marshall, Minn. — With the recent completion of DNR roadside counts in southern Minnesota, there was good news to report: pheasant numbers likely are up from last year.
But as bird hunters await department confirmation – probably in a couple weeks – that there will be more birds on the landscape this fall, they’re also being made aware that the landscape might not be as conducive to hunting as they might have hoped, thanks to drought in much of Minnesota and the Midwest.
The season-long drought in late July triggered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow the emergency haying and grazing of private lands enrolled in conservation programs, most notably the Conservation Reserve Program. In much of Minnesota affected by drought conditions, officials say, landowners have taken advantage of the option, including on some lands enrolled in the state’s pilot Walk-In Access program.
“All over Minnesota, there’s been considerable (haying and grazing) activity (on CRP acres),” said Wanda Garry, chief conservation program specialist for the USDA Farm Service Agency in Minnesota.
Under the emergency order, haying and grazing is allowed, within limits, on lands considered abnormally dry, or worse, she said. Only 50 percent of a specific tract may be hayed; up to 75 percent may be grazed.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, as of Aug. 14 about one-third of Minnesota is included; however, when the order went into effect, only 16 counties in the state were considered better off than D0.
Northwest Minnesota, where most of the state’s CRP acres are enrolled, has been affected most by haying and grazing exemptions. But southwest Minnesota hasn’t been immune, and neither have the nearly 15,000 acres enrolled in the Walk-In Access program, which allows hunters to use private lands enrolled in conservation programs like CRP.
“Hunters will notice the impacts of haying and grazing on Walk-In Access (areas),” said Tabor Hoek, private lands specialist for the state Board of Water and Soil Resources, in Marshall.
Hoek estimates that about 20 percent of the program acres – about 3,000 – has been hayed or grazed under the emergency order. While federal payments on CRP and other conservation acres hayed or grazed will be reduced by 10 percent, those also enrolled in the WIA program will see a 25-percent reduction in their total contract, according to Hoek.
“We don’t want to kick anybody out, and we need to get through this emergency,” he said, adding that the state hopes to retain the existing multi-year WIA contracts. The program exists in 21 southern Minnesota counties.
Hoek said it’s possible more WIA acres could be hayed or grazed before hunters – most of them pheasant hunters – seek them out in the near future. According to the FSA, haying is allowed through
Aug. 31, and bales must be removed from fields by Sept. 15. Grazing must end by Sept. 30.
Dennis Simon, DNR Wildlife Section chief, said he expected only “marginal” interest in haying and grazing on CRP walk-in acres. Many property owners are absentee landowners who’ve had land enrolled in CRP for many years.
Hoek said the DNR, which manages the WIA program, will have identified hayed or grazed tracts on its website, so that hunters will know prior to their travels what’s still available.
Haying, grazing elsewhere
Kelly Turgeon, Kittson County FSA executive director, said of the 1,500 CRP contracts that exist in the state’s most northwest county, haying or grazing requests have been made for about 200 of them.
While there have been emergency haying and grazing allowances made in the past, “This is the highest we’ve ever seen due to conditions drought has caused, not only in pastures but in forage crops,” Turgeon said earlier this week.
Unlike southern Minnesota, where farmers expect three good alfalfa crops, northwestern Minnesota farmers might get one good and one marginal crop of a “mixed forage,” which includes some alfalfa and some grasses, he said. This year the first crop was 30 to 50 percent less productive than normal, and in some places, there was no second cutting.
Turgeon said haying and grazing on CRP lands in the northwest could affect sharptail grouse hunting, and possibly deer hunting, but he doesn’t foresee a large effect, he said.
And where haying and grazing has taken place, he expects better regrowth in coming years.
“The activity can have some positive effects,” he said.