Oklahoma Rising

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By Haley Lockard
 
The beginning of hunting season is always met with great excitement, but the 2017 Oklahoma dove opener was extra special, as hunters from across the country set foot on land never before open to public hunting. The Oklahoma Land Access Program (OLAP) had kicked off just in time for dove season!

Oklahoma’s public lands are very popular but become crowded when quail season opens in November. To expand the public access footprint, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation started a program to lease private land on behalf of the public.
 

Oklahoma Land Access Program (OLAP)

It all began when the ODWC received a $2.26 million-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Voluntary Public Access – Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP), a provision of the 2014 Farm Bill. The Oklahoma Land Access Program is based on other successful VPA-HIP programs in Kansas, Missouri, and South Dakota. These programs reward conservation efforts by landowners on private lands while simultaneously providing greater opportunities for outdoor recreation. Through the OLAP, ODWC financially compensates private landowners that allow public access for hunting, fishing, stream access, or wildlife viewing on their property.
 
Jeff Tibbits, ODWC biologist and OLAP architect, has worked hard to create a landowner and recreationist-friendly program allowing landowners to choose between eight access types: four walk-in hunting areas, two walk-in fishing areas, and annual wildlife viewing or stream access. The a la carte approach gives landowners control over what activities take place on their property, and during which seasons.
 
Since these are working lands, producers can temporarily close access to the property to continue normal operations such as moving cattle or harvest. The increased patrol by game wardens also gives landowners peace of mind in opening their lands to public use. A Harper county landowner told me, “I like the flexibility. It was scary to think about opening our property to just anyone, but there are only benefits to participating.” The OLAP is bringing its use of technology to the forefront with a web-based OLAP Map Directory.

Recreationists can access real-time maps of walk-in areas that include property boundaries, parking areas, access information, habitat descriptions, and pictures where available. While in the field, the app utilizes GPS to help users navigate large tracts and avoid trespassing. Printable maps are also available online.
 
In its first year, the OLAP opened public access to over 50,000 acres of walk-in hunting, 52 acres of walk-in fishing, and almost four miles of stream access. Over 60 percent of enrolled acres reside in the heart of Oklahoma’s quail country.
 
“It won’t be a secret long, but during deer-gun season, OLAP was the only place to hunt quail. I loved it,” says Laura McIver, Oklahoma Regional Representative for Quail Forever.
  
These acres provide opportunity to pursue not only quail and pheasant but also, dove, turkey, small game, deer, and antelope in the open grasslands. While conducting use surveys in the field, the first hunters I spoke with were from Arkansas with a loaded truck and dog trailer chasing quail and pheasant on uncharted property.
 
“We’ve been looking forward to this trip for months. I can’t believe how much land is available,” one hunter told me. It is exciting to see the joy these hunters radiate for the opportunity to hunt so many unique parcels of land. Courtney, a hunter from Missouri said, “OLAP made hunting in Oklahoma for the first time a reality. Without the opportunity to hunt these areas, my ability to explore the Oklahoma countryside would have been difficult.”
 
Throughout the season, hunters’ stories and tales from the field continued to pour in. Joey Boyt of northwest Oklahoma recently said, “OLAP provides good places to hunt without breaking the bank.”
 
Moving into the second year of the OLAP, phones have been ringing off the hook from landowners interested in enrolling and hunters looking for their next secret spot. As November approaches, quail and pheasant hunters are busy scouting the new acres opening every day. I’ve received calls from hunters near and far interested in the OLAP properties and the new hunting opportunities Oklahoma has to offer.
 

Habitat Improvement Too

Quail Forever and Pheasants Forever in Oklahoma has partnered with ODWC to provide additional assistance for habitat improvement on acres enrolled in OLAP. Quail Forever and ODOT provide funding on a match basis for conservation practices. The chapters in Oklahoma contributed $10,000 dollars for a total of $20,000 dollars available to improve habitat on OLAP acres in 2018.
 
John Bellah, Central Oklahoma 89ers QF Chapter President said, “OLAP is a great new program, we’re proud to be part of it on the ground level. It is very important to the chapter to help provide more hunting opportunities, and this program is one of the best ways to impact habitat on private land.”
 
Our primary goal with the OLAP habitat incentive program is to create conservation partnerships which result in beneficial habitat for wildlife while simultaneously improving hunting opportunities on land enrolled in OLAP. Quail Forever Farm Bill Biologists will provide technical assistance and planning to landowners interested in taking the extra step.
 
During the planning process, we strive to balance landowner objectives with needs of wildlife. For example, on cropland with grass or brushy borders, standing grain may be used to provide winter forage and cover for upland birds. Field edges tend to be the least productive acres, therefore leaving grain unharvested reduces combine costs and provides benefits to wildlife over the winter. It’s a win-win for the producer and wildlife.
 
Currently, landowners may receive cost-share for the following practices:  standing grain for wildlife, prescribed burning, brush management, creating covey headquarters, and prescribed grazing. QF Biologists will work with the landowners to ensure practices are implemented to meet specific wildlife needs.
 
As the program grows, it will expand available conservation practices to include greater disturbance and permanent habitat creation such as pollinator plantings, shrub establishment, and native grass establishment. Quail Forever and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation want to create lasting wildlife habitat where the public can create lasting memories enjoying the resource.
 
Laura McvIver said it perfectly, “I love exploring the various properties and am happy to see some landowners are already practicing quail management. The opportunities for growth are endless and QF is thrilled to be part it.”
 
For more information on OLAP visit www.wildlifedepartment.com/olapEnrollment for OLAP is continuous, therefore landowners can sign-up anytime. To learn more and fill out an application, visit the above website and click on the Landowners tab.
 
Lockard is a Farm Bill Range and Wildlife Conservationist with Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever