In the second half of October 2007 (repeating the experience in 2009) I spent a week pheasant hunting with a group of friends in North Dakota, a landscape of distant horizons and constant winds, and where according to local folklore there is a beautiful woman behind every native tree. The only problem is finding those trees.
The basis of the five hundred thousand inhabitants state economy is farming and ranching, and to foster those activities the state is crisscrossed by a network of county roads in the North-South and East-West directions, just like an endless chess board. Each side of the squares is a mile, and each square is roughly 640 acres, and these form the standard module for the states rural properties, the mostly unpaved county roads forming “natural” property lines.
Just like farmers all over the world, and despite government subsidies, North Dakota farmers and ranchers live a somewhat difficult economic life and uncertain future, where any additional income is welcome.
And sporting hunting is just the source of such welcome income.
As little as fifteen years ago “hunter” and “pheasant” were bad words for many North Dakota farmers, especially in the Southwest regions, where the cities of New England (500 people) and Regent (300 people) are located, right in the center of the “Golden Egg”, which is the cradle of the nest wild pheasant hunting in the world.
For the farmers pheasants were simply a nuisance, braking headlights, damaging radiators, and helping to jam combines during harvest season. And for the majority of landowners, and due to the actions of an irresponsible minority, hunters were more than a nuisance, leaving gates open e allowing runaway cattle, damaging tiled land with their vehicles and littering the landscape.
But a lot changes in these fifteen years, changing a somewhat difficult situation and evolving to an environmental management model that is so successful that is sets a benchmark to be followed by other stated and even other countries.
The main point is that wildlife became valuable, both for the State as well as for land owners.
As we are all painfully aware, one of the main activities of any state, and for many their only reason for being, is to collect taxes and other tributes, and with small North Dakota population dwindling every year, attracting out of the state visitors that would pay the State directly or indirectly for the privilege and pleasure of their visit looks like a magic solution.
Faraway from everything (my round trip from Michigan was over two thousand miles) and with few attractions besides the already mentioned pheasants and other wildlife population, the few tourists really interested in North Dakota are hunters, and for enjoying the pleasure of two weeks of hunting, during which time the sportsman can harvest up to three pheasants a day, during the three month season (from mid October to mid January), each out of state hunter pays just under one hundred dollars for the small game license, that can be purchased at the internet, to any hunter that completed a hunter safety course in its home state.
But to attract hunters, it is first necessary to guarantee access to game reach tracts of lands, and with less than ten per cent of public lands in North Dakota, and the majority of those being less than prime for pheasants, a solution had to be reached.
Such solution is called PLOTS, an acronym that means Private Land Open To Sportsmen.
The mission of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is to protect, conserve and improve fish and wildlife populations and their habitats, and this could not be accomplished without working directly with landowners and land users, and the PLOTS program is the backbone of the Game and Fish Department to improve habitats and hunting access in private properties.
The PLOTS program include grazing land, annual crop land, and also other areas many times unusable for conventional farming and ranching practices, and the participation in the program is based on points reached by the different type of landscapes, like wetlands, forested areas (few and far apart), no till farming, and selective grazing. Property location to other PLOTS land is also important.
The payment to landowners varies according to the eight different management options available, in cash or tax exemptions, and currently there are around half a million acres that are managed according to PLOTS guidelines, mostly dedicated to hunting.
But as with most things in life, there is almost always a second path, and in 1992 a group of Regent landowners got together trying to develop a business model that would allow them to profit from the pheasants present in their properties.
Instead of joining the PLOTS program in which the free access to hunting land is free to all hunters, they formed a type of cooperative called Cannonball Co. (http://www.cannonballcompany.com/), one of the few rivers in the region.
Landowners that signed contracts with the Cannonball Co. receive a payment for each bird taken in their properties, e hunters are only allowed with a guide that is associated and certified by the company, and they also must stay in one of the Bed & Breakfast available at many of the farms associated.
In their first season in 1992, the Cannonball offered hunts priced at one hundred dollars per day, including lodging and meals, and just less than fifteen thousand acres, and the landowners received two dollars per bird.
In the 2007 season, the Cannonball Co. had over three hundred thousand acres under management, and forty associated landowners, eleven of them offering Bed & Breakfast services. Around eight hundred hunters paid between two and four hundred dollars per day, depending on when the hunt took place, and harvested around five thousand five hundred birds, mostly rooster pheasants and some sharp tail grouse, each netting twenty three dollars.
The economic impact of the Cannonball Co. in Regent is estimated at one and a half million dollars, or around forty thousand dollars per associated landowner. Not a bad return for the basic investment of leaving some untouched corners and ditches in the properties as well as some standing crops here and there to feed the animals during the tough North Dakota winters.
In the yellow metal triangle that identifies all the PLOTS areas, there is a word in each side: SPORTSMEN – LANDOWNER – WILDLIFE. Clearly, the three elements benefit from the relationship. Hunters have legal and free access to land and the wildlife they pursue, landowners have a financial benefit from fostering wildlife, and wildlife enjoys a healthier habitat and established and properly managed seasons.