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Local habitat access program getting underway

At top, Dan DeBoer, a farm bill biologist for Pheasants Forever based in Mitchell, listens as Mike Stephenson, a South Dakota regional representative for Pheasants Forever, answers a question about the new Walk-In Area habitat access program alongside Dave Allen, president of Pheasant Country, during the Pheasant Country meeting in December at The Depot Pub & Grille in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Efforts to improve public hunting areas are underway for local Pheasants Forever leaders.

The Community Based Habitat Access Program (CBHAP) is up and running in Mitchell, with two sites on board and three more soon to be fully committed, as well. That will amount to 300 acres of public access areas near Mitchell by the end of June, bolstered by the efforts of the CBHAP. The initial goal is for the Mitchell area to have about 4,000 acres implemented in the local program, which aims to improve on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. Grasslands enrolled in CRP are seen as some of the most important lands needed to help cultivate the pheasant population in the state, and the number of acres enrolled in the program have decreased in recent years, as have South Dakota's pheasant numbers.

Dan DeBoer, a Pheasants Forever farm bill biologist based in Mitchell, said they're looking for donations or partnerships with area businesses to fund additional land for the program.

"The idea behind it is that the more public access we have, the more hunters we have here in our area and the more money that is spent here with local businesses to help our economy," DeBoer said.

Mitchell's program got off to a big start because of the $150,000 commitment made in December by the Mitchell Pheasants Forever chapter, Pheasant Country, which DeBoer estimates will help fund that 4,000-acre goal.

The funding provided by the CBHAP is meant to "sweeten the pot," DeBoer said, along with the CRP and walk-in funding provided by South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks.

"The big advantage is that we provide another financial boost to that program to allow landowners the chance to have it make sense for them," DeBoer said.

The program is based off the Aberdeen Pheasant Coalition, which has committed $100,000 since 2016 for 1,464 acres of public walk-in hunting areas. DeBoer also cited figures from GF&P research, which indicates that for every $1 invested into a walk-in program, $15 returns to the community in local spending.

"We see those dollars come back for businesses in local and out-of-state hunters," he said.

DeBoer said the Chamberlain area will be the next focus for the program and because Mitchell's area has a 40-mile radius, the Mitchell and Chamberlain regions should be able to work together to improve central South Dakota public hunting grounds.

The timing behind the effort makes sense, because CRP enrollment is open for some priority practices until Aug. 17. There's currently 22.7 million acres enrolled in the program and it is capped nationally at 24 million acres, and for that reason, there is not a general open enrollment for CRP this year.

Because new CRP contracts aren't getting sign-up incentives and there's lower rental rates for land, the CBHAP intends to fill in some of those gaps. With the addition of a South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks walk-in contract, landowners receive a payment of $5 per acre per year (on a traditional 10-year contract, that's $50 per acre) and an additional payment of $6 per acre annually for the life of the contract. Pheasants Forever is also providing an up-front sign-up incentive payment of $35 per acre.

DeBoer said local leaders will be continuously fundraising to make as much of an impact near Mitchell as possible. Prior to the start of the program, Davison County did not have any public walk-in hunting land.

"We're really just looking for local businesses to step up and donate to really affect a larger area," DeBoer said. "Whatever we can raise will help this program."