Walk-in Area Program a boon for landowners, hunters

Adam Behnke GFP Conservation Officer
Farm Forum

The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department offers several programs to provide hunting access to the public. One is the Walk-in Area Program, which works to maintain South Dakota’s rich hunting heritage by providing public hunting access to privately owned lands that contain valuable wildlife habitat.

Through the program, a landowner opens the land to free public hunting by foot traffic only in exchange for a small payment and immunity from non-negligent liability. Landowners with land enrolled in permanent habitat conservation programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program can receive an additional, upfront bonus payment by opening it to public hunting for multiple years.

The program’s primary focus is securing permanent habitats like CRP and wetlands with standing emergent vegetation. Also, abandoned farm sites or any other permanent habitat left undisturbed during the contract year are also potential candidates. Through the program, GFP pays a $1 per acre base access payment, plus a $5 per acre bonus payment for permanent habitat left undisturbed during the contract year.

In an effort to gain access to more high-quality habitat, an additional signing bonus will be offered to landowners who sign a WIA contract on undisturbed habitat land enrolled in a USDA conservation program. Landowners who opt for the conservation program signing bonus will receive either a $2.50 or $5 per acre rate for each hunting season of the WIA contract depending on the land’s location in the state. This will be a one-time payment in the first year of the WIA contract. Landowners are required to sign a WIA contract for the length of their CRP contract to receive the signing bonus.

As a basic example, if you had 160 acres enrolled in CRP, you would receive $160 for the base access payment and $800 for undisturbed permanent habitat for a total payment of $960 in a typical year.

Under this same example, if you had 10 years remaining on the life of your CRP contract and you chose to participate in the signing-bonus incentive, you would receive a one-time payment of $4,000 or $8,000 depending on your location throughout the state.

For over 25 years, GFP has worked cooperatively with landowners to provide hunting access on privately owned lands. Working in partnership with 1,344 landowners, this program currently has more than 1.25 million acres enrolled with 112,000 undisturbed habitat acres.

To enroll land into the Walk-in Area Program, the landowner must agree to allow free, unlimited access by the public without having to obtain prior permission. Also, landowners must offer land with sufficient permanent habitat (primarily CRP or other permanent vegetation) to provide reasonable opportunity to harvest game animals.

Landowners must also enroll a contiguous tract of at least 80 acres in size. Smaller tracts may also qualify depending on the hunting opportunity. On top of that, landowners must offer land where they hold exclusive hunting rights.

Lastly, landowners must agree to reasonably protect the offered land from degradation. If the wildlife habitat on the contracted land is degraded, the WIA payment will be reduced in equal proportion to the amount of habitat removed.

If you have additional questions regarding the Walk-in Area Program, please contact your local conservation officer. Contact information for the state’s conservation officers can be found online at gfp.sd.gov/contactus/.