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.
CONSERVATION RESERVE PROGRAM
The CRP is administered by the Farm Service Agency, with the NRCS providing technical land eligibility determinations, conservation planning and practice implementation. The primary goals of the program are to reduce soil erosion, reduce sedimentation in streams and lakes, improve water quality, establish wildlife habitat, and enhance forest and wetland resources. The program encourages landowners to convert cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage that is highly susceptible to erosion to vegetative cover, such as native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filter strips or riparian buffers.
Landowners receive an annual rental payment for the term of the multi-year contract, and cost sharing is provided to cover the expense of establishing the vegetative covers. There are a wide variety of programs covered under "CRP," so the odds are good that your land may qualify for one of them.
CONSIDERING THE OPTIONS
So what do these various programs mean to the deer hunter? If you are one of the growing numbers of hunters who have purchased a tract of hunting land, or if you intend to in the near future, it simply means that you have the opportunity to create new habitat where none now exists or improve existing habitat with a significant portion of the tab being picked up by Uncle Sam.
Imagine a bare field this year being turned into a prime whitetail bedding area by next year. Think that's a far stretch? I've done it on my own land! Not only did I receive financial assistance to do it, but I also received annual payments to keep this land out of agricultural production and in prime wildlife habitat. There's a good chance a program exists to help you create more and better habitat on your land too.
HOW TO GET STARTED
As mentioned, since the rules governing these programs differ from state to state and even somewhat from county to county, there is no simple answer that I can give to cover every property in every state about qualifying for one of these programs. I get numerous phone calls and e-mails from deer hunters looking for advice on this topic. Most of the time, I cannot answer the questions that I am asked because of the wide variations in regulations.
So the very best advice I can give you is to visit your county USDA office and inquire about any conservation programs for which your property may qualify. Almost every county has a USDA office. You can find yours by going to www.usda.gov and clicking on "Contact Us" and then clicking on "USDA Service Center Locations" (under "Directories"). From there you should be able to find the address of the USDA office for your county.
You will be able to learn more specific information in one trip to your USDA office than I could ever possibly give you in an article, e-mail or phone call. I've found most of the folks working in these offices to be friendly, courteous and very willing to offer assistance.
Now I'd like to offer some personal advice gained from years of working with these programs to create wildlife habitat. First, consider hiring a professional to do the work once you have been approved for a program and are ready to implement it. With the government sharing your expenses, you're only talking about spending a few dollars out-of-pocket to hire someone with experience, and believe me, the price is well worth it.
The money you may save by doing things yourself will be forgotten as soon as you realize your efforts were wasted on an unsuccessful project. Turn the work over to someone who does it for a living. These professionals likely have done the same job on thousands of acres and have already learned the lessons that could very well doom your first efforts.
DON'T DISCOUNT NATIVE GRASSES
Another piece of advice that is worth heeding is to never overlook CRP programs that require native grass plantings. As deer hunters, we seemed to be geared toward thinking of woodlands when we think of deer habitat. The first native grass planting I did on my land was a real eye-opener. The first fall after planting the grasses, I was hunting next to the grass field one evening when eight bucks exited it to feed in a food plot. They had all been using the grass as a bedding area.
I've noticed the same thing on countless occasions since then, and today I believe the deer on my farm would rather bed in the native grasses than in the woods and brush. In fact, I have plans to plant more native grasses on my land in the very near future.
I think most serious whitetail hunters dream of owning hunting property. For many of us, that dream has become a reality, and we now realize that the habitat work we do is every bit as enjoyable as the hunting. With a little bit of effort, you can uncover the habitat improvement possibilities that exist with government-assisted programs.
Your habitat work will not only improve things for you personally, but those efforts will also provide benefits for generations of deer hunters to come. Imagine your kids and grandkids hunting in habitat that you created -- maybe even hanging a tree stand in a tree that you planted! Maybe it's time to let Uncle Sam help you create your legacy. The programs are already in place. It's up to you to utilize them.