New Pheasants Forever hunting access program sees early interest

Oct. 26—SIOUX FALLS — Pheasants Forever's new Public Access to Habitat program, announced in late August, is already seeing success in the early weeks and months of its existence.

On Aug. 23, Pheasants Forever unveiled its Public Access to Habitat program, or PATH, with the goal of enrolling 10,000 acres per year in South Dakota. Since the program's official inception on Sept. 1, the organization has already registered nearly 1,000 total acres spread between 13 landowners in the opening five weeks (as of Oct. 6), according to Matt Gottlob, Pheasants Forever's South Dakota state coordinator.

"We've had a good start to the program," said Gottlob, who works out of Sturgis. "There has been a lot of good interest. We have more applications coming in on a weekly basis, so we've been staying very busy, and I think it's going to continue to snowball."

The PATH program aims to "accelerate the statewide enrollment of lands in long-term conservation programs while bolstering participation in South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks' Walk-In Area program.

In return for 10 years of undisturbed habitat and access to private lands, PATH provides an additional sign-up incentive of up to $25 per acre on top of what's offered by the GFP Walk-In Area program. Per the GFP's website, the Walk-In Area program currently has over 1.25 million acres and 1,400 landowners enrolled, accumulated over more than 30 years.

The first year of the PATH program is already fully funded at $250,000 through sponsorships from the South Dakota Department of Tourism and onX Hunt, a GPS hunting maps service.

Though the PATH program's focus is on the "pheasant core" of South Dakota, Gottlob stressed that the program was designed to stretch to all corners of the state and include many different types of wildlife and habitats.

"The No. 1 limiting factor to sportsmen and women across the country is access," Gottlob said. "Pheasants Forever recently added 'public access' to our mission statement, so this program goes right along with the core values of what we work and stand for."

According to the August release that announced the program, 1.4 million acres, nearly 30 percent of the state's huntable grounds, are accessible through agreements such as those to be facilitated by the PATH program. Gottlob said some of the land enrolled in the opening weeks of the program already opened to the public on Oct. 1, with more to become accessible on Nov. 1.

Pheasants Forever and Gottlob both described the PATH program as "ambitious" in its goals to enroll 10,000 acres every year. However, Gottlob feels the organization's aims are ultimately attainable through a strong base of experienced personnel shared between Pheasants Forever and the GFP.

"The way we're going to reach our goals is by tapping into our network of farm-bill biologists and working with Game, Fish and Parks staff," Gottlob said. "We're going to be working with everybody out there who has face-to-face interactions with the landowners, farmers and ranchers of the state."