Habitat Improvements on Southeast Walk-in Areas

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In addition to being posted as walk-in areas, many of these public access spots in southeast Wyoming could also be signed "habitat improvement areas."

The extra title has been earned with the addition of watering holes or guzzlers, trees and shrubs and legume seeding following light tillage in Goshen, Platte and Laramie counties.

Capitalizing on Natural Resource Conservation Service cost-sharing programs, the generosity of conservation organizations and landowner cooperation, the Game and Fish Department recognized the Walk-In Area Program could be parlayed into a habitat improvement program, too.

“In the arid high plains, water is often the limiting factor for many species of wildlife," said Bart Morris, G&F access coordinator for southern Wyoming. "So it just made sense that guzzlers would be a good addition to some areas. The water isn't only a boost to hunting, it helps a variety of nongame species."

When the Walk-in Area Program was established in 1998, Ryan Amundson, the G&F/NRCS habitat extension biologist in Wheatland, and other G&F personnel recognized the potential to tap funds from federal, state and private sources to improve wildlife habitat on the area.

Many of southeast Wyoming's walk-in areas were once wheat fields that have been retired to permanent grass cover in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program. Amundson says recent expanded management options in the Farm Bill have made it easier for the G&F, NRCS and other partners to implement projects on CRP fields.

The G&F routinely visits with sportsmen using walk-in areas and landowners participating in the program. “Comments concerning the presence or absence of game and habitat conditions that either promote or deter wildlife use on a particular tract are noted,” Amundson said. “Being hunters ourselves, we are in full support of improving habitat and hunting opportunity on WIAs. Building partnerships between private, federal, and state conservation agencies and organizations has helped foot the bill for habitat improvements.”

The NRCS, Platte and Laramie County conservation districts, the G&F, Pheasants Forever's Chug Creek (Platte County) and High Plains (Laramie County) chapters, Goshen County Rooster Boosters, Water For Wildlife Foundation and Safari Club International have stepped up and helped put habitat enhancement projects on the ground, Amundson said.

As walk-in area hunters go afield this fall, they will likely notice the addition of guzzlers to numerous tracts in southeast Wyoming. The contributors have helped install more than 30 of the wildlife-watering sources in the past year. The tanks, varying in size from 450 to 2,500 gallons, support upland game bird, big game and nongame wildlife. By next summer, 20 additional tanks will be installed in water-starved portions of the three counties. The Goshen County Rooster Boosters also have released some pheasants on habitat-improved WIAs.

"Although southeast Wyoming WIAs are primarily known for bird hunting, the big game use on these tracts has increased as well, with the addition of guzzlers," said Amundson, who in addition to personal observation has documented the use with remote infrared, motion-detection cameras.

Conservation districts have been vital in the planting of thousands of seedling trees and shrubs on WIAs, as well. This spring, over 1,000 acres of CRP was enhanced through the interseeding of legumes, providing a food and cover source for all wildlife.

He commends the private pheasant organizations for their willingness to help improve habitat for all wildlife found in southeast Wyoming, not just pheasants. The region's big game and nongame species have been the primary benefactors in many cases.

The G&F and partners have focused their habitat enhancement efforts on walk-in areas that are under contract for at least five years. None of the work mentioned could be done without landowner consent. Amundson said a strong commitment to wildlife and desire to stay in the CRP program for the long-term, have provided the incentive private landowners need to improve wildlife habitat on their Walk-In Areas.

"Enhancing CRP tracts through water development, and diversifying permanent cover through interseeding or planting of trees and shrubs, are just a couple of ways a landowner may help increase his or her odds of re-enrolling in the highly competitive CRP program for another 10 years," he said.