Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: Public hunting lands can’t be taken for granted

A recent Minnesota DNR press release promoting the Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener had this to say about Montevideo, where the event was held: “Montevideo has a population of 5,500 and is located 130 miles west of the Twin Cities at the intersections of U.S. highways 212 and 59, and Minnesota Highway 7. The city actively promotes hunting and outdoor recreation. Within 25 miles of Montevideo, there are 25 Walk-In Access areas totaling 3,335 acres, 16 waterfowl production areas totaling 4,366 acres and 76 wildlife management areas totaling 47,004 acres. All are open to public hunting.”

That’s a total of 54,705 acres of land open to public hunting within a 30-minute drive of the community. I wonder how many towns across mid-America’s pheasant range can make a similar boast? Likely, most of those that can do so are located much further west, far from population centers in the expanse of the high plains, or are in Minnesota. While Montevideo benefits from being near the sprawling Lac qui Parle WMA, many of the state’s western and southwestern communities are surrounded by public hunting areas. What is even more remarkable is all of this public hunting is located within a two- or three-hour drive of the Twin Cities metro area.

Head north from the Twin Cities and you’ll find even more public hunting ground; millions of acres of county, state and national forests. Add to this the many Minnesota lakes, rivers and marshes that have public hunting opportunities, especially for waterfowl. Again, many of these lands and waters are within easy driving distance of the Twin Cities.

Experts tell us one of the biggest reasons folks give up hunting or don’t become hunters is the difficulty in finding places to hunt. This is especially true in regions of the country where public land is limited. In Minnesota, finding a place to hunt shouldn’t be a problem for just about anyone, although someone new to hunting may not know where to begin their search. However, a quick surf on the Internet should help them find the necessary resources.

With so much public land available, the future of hunting, barring a significant societal change, ought to be secure in this state. Not only does the land provide hunters with places to go, it also provides habitat for wildlife. Minnesota’s investments in farmland wildlife habitat are paying off now as private acreage in set asides such as the Conservation Reserve Program are being returned to production.

In the future, farmland game such as pheasants may fare better in western Minnesota than they do in neighboring eastern South Dakota simply because our state’s network of WMAs provides wildlife cover on an otherwise drained and plowed landscape.

Most of the Minnesota pheasant hunters of my acquaintance rely on public hunting areas, which is likely true of most hunters who do not have family or friends who own land. The same seems to be true for duck hunters, which stands to reason in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Deer hunting is more of a mixed bag. Many hunting parties have access to private land, although others, especially in the north, hunt in public forests. I’ve never seen statistics regarding what percentage of Minnesota hunting occurs on public land, but I suspect it is at least half of the total hunting effort.

Unfortunately, not all Minnesota hunters seem to know how good we’ve got it in this state. They may believe hunting is better on private land due to limited access. While this is certainly true in portions of the state where public land is limited or hunting pressure is high, great public hunting opportunities are available for all game species. One reason is that in addition to acquiring land for hunting, Minnesota has made investments in providing quality wildlife habitat.

It is difficult to imagine what Minnesota would be like without these investments in land and habitat improvement. But we can look to some other farmland states to get an idea. Some states, most famously Texas, have so little public hunting land available that nearly everyone must lease hunting rights on private land. In others, game populations are limited due to a lack of wildlife habitat. All of the productive land is devoted to production. In western states such as Montana, access to private lands has dwindled as new landowners acquired large ranches and closed them to hunting. In some situations, hunting pressure may push game species such as elk off the public lands to the comparative refuge of adjacent private property. Hunters then face the terrible irony of plentiful game that is out of reach.

A political movement in the West poses an even greater threat to hunters. Activists and some politicians are trying to force the federal government to turn over national forests and other federal lands to the states under a pretext returning the lands to local management. The real goal is to make it easier to extract oil, minerals and timber from the lands currently owned by all. Since the western states couldn’t afford the costs of management and wildfire protection across millions of acres of now-federal lands, they would likely sell it to private interests. Public hunting would disappear.

Western hunters are already familiar with the loss of hunting opportunities. Virtually any discussion with a Montana hunter will soon swing nostalgia and frustration over the loss of hunting access that has occurred as the wealthy buy up ranches and then bar hunters from the land. This year in Idaho, two billionaire brothers purchased a large tract of former timber company land that had long been open to hunting and closed it off to hunters. In addition, hunters can no longer cross these lands to access public land that is open to hunting.

There is an old song that says you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Hunters can be notoriously complacent about protecting the places that matter most to them. When it comes to public hunting areas, most hunters take them for granted. They shouldn’t.

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