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Hunters by PLOTS sign

PLOTS Guide - Introduction by Cayla Bendel

I crawl out of my sleeping bag to turn off my phone alarm and give the bird dog at my feet a few good-morning pets. As I unzip the tent door, I instantly squint at the already bright sun. The quickly rising temperatures may say otherwise, but my heart and the calendar don’t lie. It’s North Dakota’s sharp-tailed grouse opener, and while the short grass prairie I’m surrounded by begins to prepare for dormancy with the coming winter, the subtle signs of fall reawaken my spirit.

I’ve traveled here from my current home in Bismarck, but I don’t actually call North Dakota my original home. Thus, I cannot stake claim to Grandpa’s “back 40” on this opening morning, nor did I play basketball with a neighboring rancher’s kid who invited me out for a friendly reunion, nor do I ever plan on making enough money to own a little piece of this beautiful prairie for myself. But in an equally wonderful way, I, just like you, have access to about 800,000 acres thanks to many passionate and gracious private landowners who are part of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s Private Land Open To Sportsmen program.

The PLOTS program offers rental payments to landowners in exchange for providing walk-in access to hunters during any legal hunting seasons, a small price to pay for their continued management and stewardship of the land. In many cases, landowners even opt to enhance wildlife habitat on some or all of those acres. So, while my boots may only tread on these acres a few months out of the year, the habitat exists year-round, providing food, shelter, nesting cover, brood rearing cover, or all of the above. Certainly, a win for all involved.

“Up,” I say to my bird dog to prompt him into the pickup. The sun is well into the sky, and we’ll need to pack extra water, but those sharpies should be just about done with their breakfast and ready to head to slightly thicker loafing cover. With any luck, they’ll pick the stand of grass adjacent to an alfalfa field just 6 miles north of here, easily delineated by the familiar yellow PLOTS sign mounted on a slightly crooked t-post.

As we roll to a stop, and park so as not to block the gate, the bird dog shakes with anticipation. If I’m being honest, so do I. We wait all year for these few glorious autumn months. This is year-three of spending opening morning here and it’s hard not to feel some ownership of this piece of land. Understanding this, we treat these acres with the respect they deserve.

The dog runs wild, months of pent-up energy and instinct unleashing. Eventually, the heat slows him some, and it doesn’t take long for that first stiff-tail point. With some rust to shake off myself, I hesitate as the flushing birds startle me, but I eventually recover, pick out a grouse and drop one of the three.

By the time I’ve picked up my spent shotgun shell, my slightly over appreciated bird dog has retrieved an underappreciated native bird that has danced on this land for eons. I smile from the unique happiness I’ve come only to find in moments like this.

One of these days I will reach out to the landowners and share these experiences. After all, without them, none of this would be possible and I’m certain I’m not the only one with stories to tell.

So, please be respectful this fall. Be appreciative of the PLOTS program and its willing landowners, be safe and ethical while afield, and maybe even think about sharing this lifestyle, and what these 800,000 acres have to offer, with somebody new.

- CAYLA BENDEL is the Game and Fish Department’s R3 coordinator and author of The Drift blog on the Department’s website at gf.nd.gov.

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