A new method of gaining public hunting access to private land in Washington is staggering onto the scene this fall.
About 30,000 East Side acres have been enrolled in the “Hunting by Reservation Only” program. Most of the initial offerings are in Columbia, Garfield, Walla Walla and Whitman counties, plus some small-scale timberlands in northeastern Washington.
If you’ve been scouting for a spot to hunt in the deer and upland bird seasons, you may have seen the signs posted along some farm fields.
But the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website that will handle the reservations – like every website in the history of the cyber world – is being cranky. It’s not ready to go online.
“Putting up the signs takes a lot of time and we had to start with that before everything was set,” said Brian Calkins, the agency’s small game manager. “The application system hasn’t even been tested yet,” he said, explaining why the program hasn’t been announced on the agency’s website. “We’ll just have to ease into this.”
Monitor this site for updates: Wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/hunting_ access.
A separate but related upgrade to the agency’s GoHunt mapping information website also is underway. The much-improved version of the current clunky site is scheduled to be rolled out sometime next week. (See a video tutorial at youtu.be/wkvbUvrp9go.)
GoHunt will offer easy access to vast caches of harvest data and layered mapping options to help hunters plan their trips. Among the data are locations and links to information about 1.4 million acres enrolled by more than 660 cooperators in the state’s private land access program.
That hunter access program includes four familiar options: Feel Free to Hunt, Register to Hunt, Hunting by Written Permission and Landowner Hunting Permit.
The new Hunting by Reservation option is not likely to be on the GoHunt offerings right away.
Hunting by Reservation is more than just a land access program.
It’s linked with federal Farm Bill grants secured by the Fish and Wildlife Department. The state agency is using the money to compensate landowners who allow public access to their land while making improvements to wildlife habitat.
Enrolled landowners get $3 an acre for allowing access. The rate increases depending on what types of habitat improvements they make, adjusted with the Conservation Reserve Program, said Joey McCanna, WDFW game bird program manager.
A farmer signing up for interseedings to boost plant variety and wildlife value in CRP plots would get $10 an acre. Add plantings to qualifying riparian zones – only the best potential wildlife habitat – and the payments can be even higher.
Pheasants, turkeys, whitetails and everything in between will benefit along with hunters because the state qualified for the Farm Bill grants based on its existing “shovel ready” programs.
“We’ve had two major impediments to public access on some lands, especially wheat farms,” said Dave Ware, WDFW game manager. “Our programs either didn’t give the landowners enough control or they required too much of the landowners’ time dealing with hunters asking for permission.”
The Hunting by Reservation program allows landowners to set the parameters while the agency’s website handles the details, he said, noting the program immediately attracted favorable interest with 40 new cooperators.
Eventually, hunters may be able to use the in-the-works online reservation system for scheduling a snow-goose hunt in Skagit County or corn-stubble hunts in the Columbia Basin.
“(The reservation system) likely will function in one of two ways,” Ware said. “If it’s first-come, first-served, a hunter and his party of, say two or three would be limited to maybe three reservations a season within the whole system.
“In prized areas, we may go to a drawing, where hunters apply for dates and the computer randomly selects the applicants.”
This is an ambitious and potentially effective way of getting more hunters onto private lands with fewer headaches for landowners.
But hunters need to temper their expectations in proportion to the agency’s downsizing. Several district biologists around Eastern Washington contacted this week said they all were involved in public access projects, but they all have less help and more demands on their time.
And then there’s the computer software thing – the cyber woes that plague us all like some incurable relapsing fever.
Hunting by Reservation won’t be up before quail and muzzleloader elk seasons open this weekend, although some version of it is likely to be running before the Oct. 20 opening of the pheasant season.
We’ll reserve further comment until then.