Walk-in access to Minnesota hunting land to double this fall

St. Paul — It may not be quite what originally was envisioned, but the outlook for the year-old Walk-In Access program grew notably better this week.

Not only have those afield, enrolling landowners, doubled the acreage that will be available to hunters in southwestern Minnesota this fall, but the Legislature’s Game and Fish Bill contained a monetary transfer, license surcharge, and donation option that will pay for the program through its third year, and possibly longer.

“That will carry us a third year, possibly a fourth, but it’s not a long-term solution,” said Bill Penning, the DNR’s farmland wildlife program leader.

The DNR originally had proposed a $15 endorsement to hunt those lands in 21 counties.

The Walk-In Access program was created more than a year ago with federal dollars intended to support hunter access to private lands across the nation. Minnesota was slated to receive $2.7 million of a $50 million pot, which state officials decided would be used for a three-year pilot program, one that started with 10,000 acres the first year, was to grow to 25,000 the second, and 50,000 acres the third.

That dream died last year, when Congress failed to appropriate funding for Year 3.

“So, we pretty much lost $1 million,” Penning said.

Still, this year those promoting the program were shooting for 25,000 acres to make available to hunters, most of them looking for pheasants on private lands enrolled in federal and/or state conservation programs, too. Penning said he believes signup could grow beyond the current 18,000 acres.

That’s because landowners leery of the program’s future now have assurances beyond this fall (Gov. Mark Dayton hadn’t signed the Game and Fish Bill as of Outdoor News’ press time), and some landowners prefer multi-year enrollment, and the extra dollars that come with those contracts.

According to the WIA fact sheet, “Bonuses are added if more than 140 contiguous acres are enrolled, if the land is within a half-mile of existing state or federal hunting land, or if a multi-year contract is signed.”

Unspent money has accrued in a fund set aside for the venison donation for the past few years, and, while dollars will continue to go into that program, the Walk-In Access was scheduled to receive a one-time infusion of $616,000 from the fund. Also, the Legislature directed that a $5 surcharge from nonresident deer-hunting license sales be used for WIA.

Finally, according to the legislation, “A person may agree to add a donation of $1, $3, or $5 to the fees for annual resident and nonresident licenses to take small game …”

Last year, about 9,000 private-land acres were open to hunters; about 7,000 acres carried over to this year, according to Penning.

The loss of federal funding and uncertainty with the current state funding mechanism has caused Penning and WIA program coordinator Marybeth Block to scale back expectations. Right now, Penning said, “We’re shooting for a 25,000-acre program (this year and next).”

Administration of the program coupled with the $10 to $13 per acre paid to landowners would cost about $589,000 for 25,000 acres, Penning said.

The DNR has contracted with local soil and water conservation districts to contact and enroll interested landowners. Penning said there are about 20 people engaged in those activities.

The DNR recently reminded landowners in those 21 southwestern counties that the signup deadline for this fall is June 1. Privately owned parcels of 40 acres or more, which already are enrolled in a conservation program such as the

Conservation Reserve Program or Reinvest in Minnesota may qualify for WIA.

The DNR also reminds hunters that WIA lands are for public hunting only – not target practice, trapping, dog training, camping, horseback riding, etc.

Locations of the parcels enrolled in WIA will be available on the DNR’s website in August.

For more information, call (651) 259-5223.

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