PLOTS Sign by water

PLOTS Program Update

Authors and Contributors
Ron Wilson

Private Land Open To Sportsmen, the Game and Fish Department’s well-known walk-in access program turned 20 in 2017. With that considerable milestone in the rearview mirror, Kevin Kading, Game and Fish private land section leader, addresses the status of the program today, and possible changes to make the program more attractive to landowners and hunters in the future.

Q: The acreage in the PLOTS program has remained somewhat stable for the last few years. Where does the program stand this year?

A: Game and Fish Department private land biologists increased acreage in the program by 25,000 acres. The program will have approximately 762,000 acres available for the 2018 fall hunting season. The reason for the increased acres was an effort to work with producers who had Conservation Reserve Program contracts set to expire. With very few options to get back into CRP, many producers were looking for other alternatives. We also worked with landowners to plant more new habitat, including about 1,600 acres of new grass in 2018. The Department also made an effort to utilize funds generated from unsuccessful deer lottery applicants who chose to donate their fees to the PLOTS program. We were able to enroll some very nice tracts of land, and plant some new acres of habitat using these funds, putting those dollars to work developing deer habitat. These efforts still can’t replace the amount of habitat that was available when CRP was at its peak, but it’s a start.

Q: The PLOTS acreage goal at one time was 1 million acres. After carrying more than 700,000 acres for the last three or four years, is there a more realistic goal?

A: The Department still has a goal of 1 million acres in the program, however, the objective is to maintain the highest amount of quality habitat in the program as possible. In 2017, the Department hired a consulting firm to do an extensive evaluation of the PLOTS program to evaluate opinions of hunters and landowners to determine if the program meets hunter expectations, what can be done to improve the program and where we should focus our efforts. The evaluation also looked at what landowners like or dislike about the program, what they think could be improved and what we could do differently to make enrollment more appealing. The survey consisted of more than 1,300 telephone surveys to hunters and landowners, and six in-person focus groups moderated by the consultant were held across the state with hunters and landowners. One of the questions in the survey presented hunters with a hypothetical choice regarding the PLOTS program: More areas available to hunt, with a potential sacrifice in wildlife or habitat quality, or fewer areas available to hunt, with better wildlife habitat? By more than a 2-to-1 ratio, hunters selected fewer areas, with higher quality habitat. This was consistent across all hunter groups (PLOTS or non-PLOTS hunters; residents or nonresidents). This supports the Department’s objective to maintain higher quality habitat, versus simply enrolling acres just to hit that 1 million acre goal. We’ve been more selective in lands being enrolled and will be doing more to promote habitat enhancements and developments in the program.

Q: The weather being what it is here on the Northern Plains, what are you hearing about how enrolled acres are looking this year compared to 2017 when the state was hit hard by drought?

A: 2017 was a difficult year for all three pillars of the PLOTS program – landowners, wildlife and hunters. When you think about it, the 2017 drought had impacts to nesting cover, brood rearing cover, fall hunting cover and winter cover. A lot of areas simply did not even green up in 2017, which made it different than other drought years, where we had some green-up in spring and early summer providing good nesting and brood rearing cover, but things dried up later in the summer. In addition to hurting crops, hay and pastures, the lack of rain made establishing new habitat difficult. For example, Todd Buckley, Department private land biologist in Williston, said a new grass planting seeded in mid-May on a PLOTS tract in Williams County only received about 2 inches of rain all year. The lack of rain on the new grass set it back significantly. In 2017, PLOTS biologists received calls daily from landowners seeking to hay or graze on PLOTS. Most PLOTS agreements have management plans to allow some haying or grazing. During times of drought, requests for PLOTS haying or grazing outside of the normal prescribed management increases. Landowners may adjust their management plans, but their payments will also be adjusted to reflect the change as well. This is one reason landowners like the program, because of its flexibility. 2018 is shaping up to be a much better year.

Q: In 2017, the PLOTS program turned 20. That’s a nice milestone for a program that is widely recognized by hunters across the state. What is the status of the program today as it marches in the direction of another milestone?

A: The program remains popular with hunters and landowners. As we found out from the recent survey, participants, overall, are satisfied with the Department and with the program. During the last 20 years there was a very close association between the Conservation Reserve Program and PLOTS. Sometimes the association is so close that hunters and landowners think they are the same program. This association was made in the early years of CRP when PLOTS first came on the scene in the mid-1990s, offering cost-share assistance to landowners enrolling into CRP. As the demand for PLOTS from hunters grew, and CRP acres in the state began to level off, PLOTS added other components to the program, in addition to cost-share for CRP. Programs designed for working lands have become a bigger component of PLOTS and will likely continue to be. Private land biologists like Renae Schultz, Jamestown, and Curt Francis, Dickinson, are hopeful that programs like the new Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and partnerships such as Pheasants Forever’s Precision Agriculture program that provide options for marginal and sensitive soils, while still farming the most productive soils, will become more attractive in their districts.

Q: In 2017, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department conducted a survey with resident and nonresident hunters, landowners currently in the PLOTS program, and landowners who have never been in the program, to see if the program meets their expectations and find ways to improve. What did you learn?

A: Here are some statements from the survey:

  • Awareness of PLOTS is high – 82 percent of hunters and 65 percent of non-PLOTS landowners reported having some knowledge about the program. Despite high awareness of PLOTS in general, there is less awareness of some aspects of the program. Of hunters who indicated awareness of PLOTS, only 25 percent knew how the program is funded.
  • Both hunters and landowners view the PLOTS program favorably. Given the difficulty in contacting landowners, the hunting access provided by PLOTS was discussed among hunters as being one of the program’s greatest assets.
  • Despite their overall satisfaction, focus group participants perceived there to be a decline in the quality of habitat and wildlife on PLOTS land. Several focus group participants indicated that habitat and wildlife started to decline about 10 years ago. Focus group participants most frequently stated that the loss of CRP acreage was the primary reason for the decrease in wildlife and habitat quality. Other reasons cited were harsh winters, drought and coyotes.
  • When asked what they like least about hunting on PLOTS land, hunters replied that the land is too crowded, there is a lack of game, or the land is overhunted, and the land is barren or the habitat is poor.
  • When asked in an open-ended question what could be done to improve the quality of PLOTS tracts, responses given by at least 10 percent of hunters include protecting native grassland, restoring or enhancing native grassland, protecting or enhancing wetlands, planting trees and shrubs along stream corridors, and rotating grazing systems.
  • When asked to rate the importance of wildlife to their land, on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is not at all important and 10 is extremely important, PLOTS landowners gave a mean rating of 7.76, which is well above the midpoint of 5.00. Even non-PLOTS landowners gave relatively robust ratings, with a mean rating of 6.76.
  • Among PLOTS landowners, the top motivations for enrolling their land are that they wanted to have their land open to hunting, and the land-use payments.
  • A majority (60 percent) of current PLOTS landowners and 45 percent of former PLOTS landowners agree that the Department is offering attractive program options.
  • A majority (64 percent) of current PLOTS landowners and 33 percent of former PLOTS landowners agree that the Department is offering attractive payment rates.
  • Of non-PLOTS landowners who knew about the program, the top reasons that they are not enrolled are that they are just not interested (20 percent), they want privacy or control over who is on the property (13 percent), they already allow others to hunt the property (11 percent), the Department declared the property ineligible or did not want to enroll it (8 percent), and they are not familiar enough with the program (7 percent).
  • Several landowners in the focus groups were not interested in enrolling. Some simply do not want strangers on their land, or they have had negative experiences with hunters. For others, the payments are not enough to compete with other financial incentives such as farming the land, producing livestock, renting the land to tenants, or renting the land to outfitters or other hunting parties.
  • Half of non-PLOTS landowners in the survey who knew about the program said nothing would interest them in enrolling their land.
  • Most landowners enrolled in PLOTS (90 percent) are interested in continuing with the program when their current agreements expire.
  • Satisfaction is high among PLOTS hunters. They were asked about four aspects of the program. The percentages who were satisfied were nearly identical (82-84 percent) for the quality of habitat, the PLOTS opportunities available to them, and the opportunities to encounter wildlife. Slightly behind, but still favorable, was the amount of acreage available (73 percent satisfied with it).
  • Hunter satisfaction with PLOTS has remained stable. A solid majority of PLOTS hunters (72 percent) said their satisfaction has remained about the same over the past 10 years, whereas there is a nearly even split between those whose satisfaction has increased (12 percent) and decreased (11 percent).
  • Most current PLOTS landowners (91 percent) are satisfied with their experiences participating in the program. Most (88 percent) are satisfied with the terms of agreement (4 percent are dissatisfied) and a majority (78 percent) are satisfied with the payment rate (12 percent are dissatisfied). When asked what they dislike about the program in an open-ended question, only 5 percent said the payments are too low.
  • Of landowners who received assistance from the Department on enhancing their land through PLOTS, 90 percent are satisfied with the assistance.
  • There are substantial differences between resident and nonresident hunters regarding the species hunted on PLOTS land. Only 5 percent of nonresident PLOTS hunters travel to North Dakota to hunt deer or other big game, while 58 percent of resident PLOTS hunters hunt big game. In contrast, 44 percent of nonresident PLOTS hunters hunt waterfowl, compared to just 27 percent of resident PLOTS hunters. Consistent with the latter finding, nonresident PLOTS hunters are much more likely than resident PLOTS hunters to hunt on wetlands. The top species type targeted by both hunter groups, however, is upland game birds.
  • Newer hunters in the focus groups indicated that they primarily hunt on land enrolled in PLOTS, as newer hunters are less likely to have established relationships with private landowners. Conversely, several long-time hunters indicated that they hunt on posted private land much more frequently than PLOTS land.
  • The focus group discussion found that hunters have noted an increase in recent years in the number of landowners who rent their land to outfitters or hunting parties, closing it off to local hunters.
  • Most landowners in the focus groups (PLOTS and non-PLOTS landowners alike) are also hunters, and most hunt their own land. They are generally willing to allow others on the land. However, their own hunting or that of friends and family takes precedence.
  • Among all hunters, 73 percent have sought permission to hunt on posted property in North Dakota over the past 10 years. A substantially higher percentage of PLOTS hunters (82 percent) than non-PLOTS hunters (66 percent) have sought permission.
  • Two-thirds (66 percent) of all hunters who sought permission were successful in obtaining permission or were granted permission more often than not. Nonetheless, other hunters were not as fortunate as 23 percent received about an equal number of permissions and denials, and 10 percent were denied permission or were denied more often than not.
  • PLOTS hunters travel a median of 50 miles (one-way) to hunt on property enrolled in the program and are willing to travel a median of 150 miles to hunt anywhere, not just on PLOTS land. Nonresident PLOTS hunters travel a median of 200 miles to hunt on PLOTS land and are willing to travel a median of 400 miles to hunt anywhere.
  • Regarding access and travel distances, 77 percent of hunters who knew that the amount of PLOTS acreage had decreased over the past 10 years indicated that they would hunt more often if more acreage were available to them within an acceptable travel distance.
  • PLOTS has particular value to hunters who live in cities as it reduces their travel distance to find land to hunt.
  • PLOTS hunters with children like the ease of going to PLOTS land and hunting immediately without having to contact a landowner.

Q: While we understand that the Department’s PLOTS is landowner driven, what role do hunters play in making sure this program remains on the landscape?

A: Hunters play a role by making sure they treat the PLOTS tracts they hunt with respect. It goes without saying that a “few bad apples” can ruin a good PLOTS tract. Landowners are generously enrolling their land into this voluntary program. We receive calls every year about litter, off-trail travel, dumping of carcasses and so on from owners of PLOTS lands. Our wardens can’t be everywhere they need to be so we ask hunters to look out for poor behavior from others and contact the Department if they witness something. Another way hunters can help ensure the program remains on the landscape is to buy a hunting license, even if they don’t plan to hunt a particular year or if they don’t plan to hunt on PLOTS. Interestingly, the survey pointed out that many hunters don’t understand how PLOTS is funded. PLOTS is funded from the sales of hunting licenses and interest accrued from the Department’s operating fund. No state tax dollars go into the program. Hunters can also elect to have fees for the deer gun lottery application donated to the PLOTS program if they are unsuccessful in the drawing. Funds generated from this process go directly into habitat enhancement, development and public access. Funds generated from the sales of hunting licenses are leveraged with federal Pittman-Robertson funds, which come from excise taxes from the sale of sporting arms and ammunition. Collectively, these funds help the Department manage species and their habitats and keep programs like PLOTS on the landscape. It’s a user-funded system. Without the hunting license sales, the Department has less funding available for habitat management, research and programs like PLOTS.

PLOTS Online

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s Private Land Open To Sportsmen Guide for 2018 is available online. In addition, PLOTS Guides will be available at most license vendors throughout the state.

The guide will feature about 762,000 PLOTS acres. Because the guide is printed in August, some PLOTS tracts highlighted in the guide may have been removed from the program since the time of printing. There will also be some PLOTS tracts where the habitat and condition of the tract will have changed significantly. Conversely, Game and Fish may have added new tracts to the program after the guide went to press.

To minimize possible confusion, Game and Fish will update PLOTS map sheets weekly on its website.

The PLOTS Guide features maps highlighting these walk-in areas, identified in the field by inverted triangular yellow signs, as well as other public lands.

PLOTS Guides are free, and available at license vendors in the state; by walk-in at the Game and Fish Department’s Bismarck office; and at district offices in Riverdale, Harvey (Lonetree), Williston, Dickinson, Jamestown and Devils Lake.

The guides are not available to mail, so hunters will have to pick one up at a local vendor, or print individual map sheets from the website.