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Open fields

Published (4/15/2010)
By Sue Hegarty
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Hunters who want to test their marksmanship on small game, waterfowl, deer and other Minnesota wildlife have access to more than 57,000 acres of public hunting grounds, but there are a few frustrations, say stakeholders.

Prime hunting areas for bagging small game such as prairie chickens, grouse and pheasants are mostly on private land in the southwest part of the state.

Neighboring states have programs that pay private landowners for public “walk-in” access.

Creating more public access in small game nesting areas is the goal of HF3722, which would establish a two-year pilot walk-in access program in Minnesota. Rep. Tom Hackbarth (R-Cedar) sponsors the bill, which was laid over April 12 for possible inclusion in the House Game, Fish and Forestry Division omnibus bill.

The House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division held an information hearing April 13 on funding options. No action was taken.

The program comes with a $2 million fiscal note, but Hackbarth proposes leveraging an appropriation from the game and fish fund with a federal Open Fields grant. Authorized by Congress in 2008, Open Fields provides $50 million worth of competitive grants through 2013.

Revenue from the nearly 900,000 Minnesota hunting licenses sold each year is deposited into dedicated accounts in the game and fish fund. One funding option could include applying a surcharge to hunting license fees. Nonpartisan House Fiscal Analysis estimates that all hunters would need to pay an additional $2.33 to cover the full cost of the pilot program. However, that number would be higher if the surcharge was only levied against the 266,000 small game hunters. Obtaining an Open Fields grant would lower the costs.

The program could target public land already enrolled in existing easements, such as the federal Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program or Reinvest in Minnesota. Private landowners who receive payments for these programs would be paid additionally for a walk-in hunting easement. Land enrolled in the pilot program would need to be a minimum of 40 contiguous acres and be available to the public during the small game season, September through February.

Stakeholders hope that 25,000 acres would be enrolled the first year and 50,000 the second year. It would take a minimum 5,000 acres to begin the walk-in program.

A study by the Department of Natural Resources found that other states pay private landowners between 45 cents and $8.52 per acre. Fees are determined in a variety of ways: a flat fee, negotiated rates or payment based on the number of hunting days. Minnesota is basing its proposed walk-in program on South Dakota, which pays landowners $1.74 per acre, according to the 2008 Access to Minnesota Outdoors study.

Eventually, Hackbarth hopes the program appropriations would come from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, but some legislators don’t believe that would be a legal use of the funds. Access to hunting is viewed as a secondary issue. Hackbarth, who was a sponsor of the constitutional amendment legislation to establish the fund, disagrees.

“Hunters and fisherman helped pass the amendment and they don’t get the benefit of it,” he said.

Besides funding issues, legislators must also address the landowner’s liability risk and concerns from adjacent landowners not enrolled in the program. Another concern is that half the agricultural land in the state is leased by absentee owners.

Proponents say with proper signage and enforcement, those details can be worked out. Besides meeting current demand for open hunting space, it’s important to introduce children to small game hunting as a retention method for hunting in the state. Although the number of hunting licenses sold has been stable, there is a fear that as the baby boomers age, those numbers will drop, along with revenues.

The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association supports the bill. Executive Director Mark Johnson said the No. 1 reason people say they stop hunting is because they feel they don’t have a place to go or because access is too far from home.

Tourism is another carrot that supporters can dangle. About 6,500 licensed small-game hunters are non-residents. The average hunter spends an estimated $1,100 annually to engage in the sport, Johnson said.

A companion, SF3297, sponsored by Sen. Satveer Chaudhary (DFL-Fridley), was recommended to pass for possible omnibus bill inclusion March 24 by the Senate Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Division.

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