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PLOTS program productive and going strong

Throughout the years I've been writing, I've continued to highlight the Conservation Reserve Program, and for good reason. It's not by sheer accident that North Dakota's wildlife populations have experienced a contemporary revival that rivals most hunters' recollections of "the good old days."

Many factors influence wildlife populations, and weather and habitat are at the top of the list for both positive and negative trends. In simple terms, weather determines the direction, and habitat determines how high or low a population can go.

For example, even without a reasonable habitat base, resident pheasant and deer populations will likely increase given a couple of favorable winters like we had last year. On the other hand, even with ideal habitat, pheasant or deer numbers will likely decline in the short term given a difficult winter like we had in 2010-11.

Wildlife management, such as increasing or decreasing the number of deer licenses, also has an important role, but weather and habitat are often the factors that shape those wildlife management decisions.

My dad, and various neighbors and friends, sometimes comment about the Soil Bank program that existed from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. I never had the opportunity to see acres from this program, and in fact my first recollections of hunting are from the 1980s -- long after Soil Bank expired and before the CRP was established.

Those first hunting memories are wrapped up in a picture of my dad, Bob Wishek and and me with just a couple of pheasants in the bag. When you consider the cost of taking and developing one old- fashioned picture you realize the significance of the pheasant hunt.

It was a decent pre-CRP hunt out of the primary pheasant range -- in LaMoure County -- in an era when the total pheasant harvest across North Dakota in 1985 was 110,000 by 42,000 hunters. Twenty years later in 2005, after nearly 20 years of the CRP program, more than 92,000 hunters harvested 800,000 roosters.

Even with my marginal math background, the number of hunters more than doubled and the number of pheasants bagged was about eight times as many.

It's well documented that the loss of CRP acres in North Dakota, combined with three severe winters, stressed wildlife and added to mortality. Loss of CRP, which will total 1.8 million acres by the end of this fall, also eliminates places to hunt.

Since the Game and Fish Department's Private Land Open to Sportsman program got off the ground in the late 1990s, and built to more than a million acres in 2007, roughly half the program acres have been tied to CRP.

The PLOTS program provides walking access to hunters, and almost all of us are accustomed to knowing we'll have at least some places to hunt each fall. When the annual PLOTS guide comes our later this month, it's almost a learned response to page through it and check out the usual hunting spots. If I see a new PLOTS tract in the areas I typically hunt, I'll plan an on-the-ground look.

While the number of acres is down a bit from five years ago, mostly because of reduced CRP acres, the program is still going strong and provides quality hunting opportunities, in addition to other options most of us arrange with private landowners.

The way things look so far, this fall has improved prospects over last year for upland game birds and waterfowl. The arrival of the PLOTS guide in the next couple of weeks will help build the anticipation for another great North Dakota fall outdoors.

Leier is a biologist with the Game & Fish Department. He can be reached by email: