Jake George remembers his college days, when he and his friends were just getting started in hunting.
They didn’t have the contacts with landowners back in those days. And they were scrambling to find places where they had permission to hunt.
That’s why George found the following to be such a blessing: the Walk-In Hunting Access (WIHA) program of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, which compensates landowners for opening their land to the public.
“I started when I was at K-State,” George said. “We found some WIHA land in Marshall and Washington counties, and we had some great hunts there.
“It wasn’t overrun by other hunters like we were expecting, and we found both pheasants and quail in there.”
Years later, George has come full circle. Today, he is in charge of that WIHA program, which has won national acclaim for the access it provides hunters.
And he still is a big believer in the difference it has made in Kansas hunting. In a state where 97 percent of the land is privately owned, public wildlife areas were crowded and heavily pressured before WIHA came along.
“Today, I hunt almost exclusively on WIHA land,” he said. “If you do some research and choose some places that are somewhat secluded, you can find good hunting.”
When WIHA started with a pilot program in 1995, it included 46 landowners in seven counties in south-central Kansas who opened 10,345 acres to public hunting. It was so successful that it was expanded to include land statewide.
Today, there are 2,200 landowners who participate and provide 1.05 million acres of public access. Not all of it is prime hunting, either because of habitat changes or because it gets heavily pressured.
But especially in western Kansas, where more than 50 percent of the WIHA land is located, the access program can provide surprisingly good public hunting.
“We started WIHA to take pressure off our public wildlife areas,” George said. “We weren’t the first state to try this, but we were one of a handful of states that did.
“Providing access is the key to gaining interest in hunting.”
Here’s how WIHA works:
▪ Landowners voluntarily offer to participate in the program and lease their land to Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
▪ Wildlife biologists then survey the land to make sure that it meets minimum habitat requirements.
▪ Once the land is approved, terms of compensation are worked out with the landowner. Payments differ according to the amount of acres, the location of the land, the quality of the habitat and the time frame in which the land is open to the public (for example, some open their land from September to May; others may opt for spring only). George said the state pays an average of $2.50 per acre, but payments can range from 50 cents to $6 per acre.
▪ From 60 to 65 percent of the WIHA land is already enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), in which farmers are compensated for idling marginal land and enhancing wildlife habitat. So farmers receive additional income.
▪ Each year, Wildlife, Parks and Tourism prints an atlas with maps showing locations of WIHA land. Through an online map at the department’s website (ksoutdoors.com), hunters can even use tools to examine the lay of the land they consider hunting.
▪ WIHA signs are posted at each location in the program. When those signs are spotted, hunters can simply park their vehicles along a road and walk in, without asking the landowner for permission.
“At first, there were some concerns by landowners that there was going to be littering and vandalism if they opened their land to the public,” George said. “But really, that hasn’t been a major problem.
“I’m not going to say it doesn’t exist, but we just don’t get many calls from upset landowners.”
Surveys show that hunters approve of WIHA. Wildlife, Parks and Tourism representatives get out in force on the opening weekends of pheasant and deer season and distribute survey cards. In the 2014-15 seasons, 81 percent of deer and quail hunters who responded said they were satisfied with “the overall hunting experience on this WIHA tract.”
The total was lower for pheasant hunters who responded (69.3 percent), but 2014 was a season in which statewide pheasant populations were down because of the drought.
Now George is hoping to improve the WIHA program even further. He is especially focused on getting more participants in the eastern half of the state.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about WIHA, both among landowners and hunters,” he said. “People think that if the land is within an hour of an urban center, it is going to get overrun by hunters.
“That happens, but not as often as many would think. If hunters do their homework, they can find good tracts of land that don’t get hit that hard.”