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Doug Leier: Habitat is the key for all wildlife populations

From license sales to excise taxes, membership in clubs and volunteering, hunters have always stepped up to try to improve the outdoor world.

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Habitat is one of the variables where more impact is possible, in terms of efforts to benefit wildlife populations.
Ashley Peterson/North Dakota Game and Fish Department
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Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.

WEST FARGO – I was at the meat locker and struck up a conversation about deer coming in and reports from this fall’s fortunate hunters who drew and filled deer tags in North Dakota. Just like a nasty cold front bucking in from the northwest, the conversation shifted to pheasants and how the 2022 spring snow and summer rains helped pull the farmers and ranchers out of a drought and put better crops in the bin and, in this case, wild game in the freezer and locker plant.

The underlying theme is weather and habitat.

The weather is going to do what the weather does. Habitat, on the other hand, is one of the variables where a little more impact is possible.

From license sales to excise taxes, membership in clubs and volunteering, hunters have always stepped up to try to improve the outdoor world.

“How can we help?” and “What can we do?” are frequent questions posed to wildlife managers and administrators.

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While money isn’t necessarily the answer to all habitat issues, it’s part of the formula helping to maintain, create or enhance habitat. And, in the end, it helps increase the harvest for hunters now and into the future

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Following the 2015 legislative session, unsuccessful applicants in the North Dakota deer gun lottery could, for the first time, donate their refunds to the Game and Fish Department’s Private Land Open to Sportsmen program, better known as PLOTS.

In 2017, legislators approved another bill that allowed resident deer gun, muzzleloader, pronghorn and turkey hunters to purchase a bonus point for a fee that is the same as the respective license. In 2019, hunters could donate directly to PLOTS

Thousands of hunters who were unsuccessful in the deer gun lottery in the last five years donated their license fee back to the PLOTS program.

According to the latest numbers, this year over $62,600 has been donated to the PLOTS program and nearly $600,000 in just four years. About $108,000 has been generated from resident deer gun bonus point purchases since 2017. All told, there are more than a dozen categories of donations, which add up to over $1.3 million.

“We’re focusing primarily on developing good winter cover, like trees and grasslands that provide cover during warmer months for adult does having fawns,” said Kevin Kading, the Game and Fish Department’s private land section leader.

Relative to the amount of deer habitat lost during the past decade, Kading said the program isn’t an immediate panacea.

“It’s a start … and we have to start somewhere,” he said. “If the dollar amount grows, we can leverage these dollars with other funds, such as the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund and federal Pittman-Robertson funds to do bigger projects.”

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Kading said Game and Fish personnel are careful about picking sites to plant grass and trees.

“We are trying to place the new plantings in areas that are near other wildlife habitat,” he said. “We want to tie into existing habitat bases that are already out there, instead of, say, creating a small piece of habitat in the middle of nothing.

“This habitat being planted on PLOTS lands benefits deer and other animals, and deer just don’t stay on PLOTS,” he added. “If you can help them get through winter and provide places for deer to have fawns in spring, hunters will benefit from this somewhere else in coming years.”

It should be noted that this program isn’t the Game and Fish Department’s first venture into creating wildlife habitat on PLOTS lands.

“PLOTS has developed thousands of acres of habitat with private landowners over the years,” Kading said. “What we are talking about here is an additional bump in funding that is directly earmarked for creating deer habitat and access.”

All hunters deserve a thank you for their contributions of time and resources to improve habitat and access.

Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.
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