A number of years ago, my friend Todd Hewing joked that I was the only person he knew who bought a tract of hunting land that didn’t have a tree on it. I had to correct him, though, as there was a single oak tree along one edge of the property line. It was even big enough to hold a tree stand!
Other than that single tree, the 65-acre plot of land was basically a blank canvas for me to create a prime whitetail habitat masterpiece on. In all honesty, this property was not my first choice to purchase as a hunting tract. But since it was adjacent to 40 acres that I already owned, I jumped at the chance to purchase it. On top of that, I knew firsthand the options that were available to help me create a quality deer habitat on thi s property, and several of those options involved using government programs that would help pay for it.
Now, five years later, this property has whitetails bedding and feeding on it almost daily.
The transformation has been fun as well as rewarding, and the property has been largely financed through government programs. As icing on the cake, I’ve seen multiple whitetail bucks scoring over 150 inches on this property during every hunting season that I’ve owned it. This proves that the benefits gained from the habitat improvement programs I’ve implemented can often be seen almost immediately.
It’s one thing to get information from someone who has used government programs to improve the habitat on their own land. It’s another thing to meet with someone who makes a sizable portion of his annual income implementing these projects on land owned by others. I’m in the fortunate position to do both.
DETERMINE YOUR NEEDS
In addition to my experience on my own personal land, I also own and operate Higgins Tree Farm (www.higginstrees.com), where one of my primary jobs is to serve as a reforestation tree-planting contractor on land enrolled in various conservation programs. As such, I’ve planted literally millions of trees on thousands of acres as part of various government-funded conservation projects. I have also planted numerous shrubs and native grasses through these government-funded programs.
In addition, I offer a whitetail hunting and habitat consultation service where I visit properties and advise landowners on hunting strategies and how to improve their whitetail habitat. These improvements often utilize government-funded programs as well. (www.higginsoutdoors.com).
Over the years, I’ve become very familiar with these programs, and I’ve have seen firsthand how they can be used to create quality habitat at little or no cost to the landowner. Government-funded programs offering the most value to whitetail hunters are the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and, the granddaddy of them all, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
All three of these programs are options for landowners to consider, but your property will likely not qualify for all of them, because each has a list of requirements that must be met. Some programs require the land to have a farming history for several years, while others require that the land be prone to erosion or located along a watercourse.
I’ll give a brief overview of each of these programs. But before jumping to any conclusions and making plans for your property, I strongly advise that you visit your local USDA office and inquire about which programs your land may qualify for. There are simply too many variables from state to state and from county to county for me to detail everything in a single article.
WILDLIFE HABITAT INCENTIVES PROGRAM
WHIP is a program for people who want to develop and improve wildlife habitat primarily on private land. Through WHIP, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service provides both technical assistance and up to 75 percent cost-share assistance to establish and improve fish and wildlife habitat. WHIP agreements between the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the participant generally last from 5 to 10 years from the date the agreement is signed. By targeting wildlife habitat projects on all lands and aquatic areas, WHIP provides assistance to conservation-minded landowners.
WETLANDS RESERVE PROGRAM
The WRP is a voluntary program that allows landowners the opportunity to protect, restore and enhance wetlands on their property. Through the WRP, landowners are paid 100 percent of the cost to establish habitat improvement projects as outlined by the USDA NRCS. The landowner also receives a substantial payment for enrolling his or her land in this program. WRP contracts are long-term, either permanent or 30-year agreements.
The NRCS goal is to achieve the greatest wetland functions and values, along with optimum wildlife habitat, on every acre enrolled in the program. This program offers landowners an opportunity to establish long-term conservation and wildlife practices and protection. WRP projects often contain a variety of habitat improvements, such as shallow-water wetlands and tree plantings.