Public lands fall under many types and jurisdictions, but understanding them can open countless hunting opportunities
One of the first things people ask me after learning that I am an avid bird hunter tends to be, “Where do you hunt birds?” followed up by, “You hunt public land?” The first question is asked out of curiosity. The second question usually comes in a different tone. Depending on where you are in North America, hunting public land can be viewed in entirely different ways. For some, it’s the only way to hunt. For others, it carries a certain stigma. Regardless of where you live and hunt, it’s worth expanding your horizons to consider the public lands available in your area.
America’s public lands offer unparalleled hunting opportunities. There have been millions of acres of land set aside for conservation, protection, restoration, and outdoor recreation. Public land bird hunting is what I do, it’s what I prefer, and what I know best.
Public Land Hunting
Public land hunting is any federal, state, or local area designated as parks, forests, grasslands, and management areas that are legally open to and physically accessible to hunting.
Public land means that the land is owned by federal, state, county, or local governments and is open and accessible to everyone. Sometimes there is a fee associated with access. The downside to public lands are that they are managed by a multitude of departments, offices, and bureaus. These are further divided by state and region, which can make it difficult for bird hunters to locate information about where to hunt.
Types of Federal Land
The list for federal lands include National Parks, National Grasslands & Forests, Wildlife Refuges, Wetland Management Districts, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Lands, and Designated Wilderness.
National Parks are perhaps the best known of federal public lands. The parks are operated by the National Park Service. There is a myth that National Parks don’t allow hunting. In fact, 59 out of 390 properties allow hunting.
National Forests & Grasslands are operated by the U.S. Forest Service. Both are quite hunter friendly and the lands that encompass them tend to have excellent habitat for upland birds. A variety of grouse (ruffed, dusky, spruce), woodcock, and even Band-tailed pigeons can be hunted throughout various National Forests across the country. National Grasslands offer wingshooters mixed-bag opportunities for prairie birds such as sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chickens, quail, gray partridge, and pheasants.
Hunting in National Forests and Grasslands comes with benefits in that roads provide access to “deeper” backcountry bird hunts. Want to get off the beaten path to chase birds? Then pitch a tent onto these lands. Backcountry camping is often unregulated and permissive in where one can camp. What better way to spend the night than under the stars around a campfire, cooking grouse in a frying pan with your trusty bird dog laying along your sleeping bag? Now that’s what I call an ultimate upland road trip!
National Wildlife Refuges, by their name alone, might imply that that hunting is prohibited. The word refuge means “a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble.” However, many National Wildlife Refuges, which are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are great places to upland bird hunt. Some have restricted areas and others may have limited hours for access, but they are worth checking out to understand the available hunting opportunities.
There is at least one National Wildlife Refuge in each of the 50 U.S. states. Wildlife refuges are more commonly known for having opportunities for waterfowl hunting because they commonly encompass marsh lands. However, many refuges have an abundant variety of habitats with opportunities for snipe and other marsh birds as well as quail and pheasants.
Wetland Management Districts are comprised of counties in which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has acquired or leased wetland or pothole areas and is managing them as a Waterfowl Production Area (WPA).
Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) are parcels of land purchased with funds from the sale of Federal Duck Stamps. These lands are managed to provide high quality migratory bird habitat and are open to the public for hunting and other wildlife-dependent activities. To those hunters chasing ring-necks, WPAs shout “Pheasants!” because they feature cattails, sloughs, and thick cover.
BLM is short for Bureau of Land Management, which is primarily in western states. BLM lands are not found in states east of Colorado. BLM lands are defined by their multi-use activities and limited regulations. BLM lands afford bird hunters the opportunity to drive off-road vehicles in remote stretches, backcountry camp, hike, and hunt. BLM is often synonymous with extreme upland bird hunting…think rugged and remote as well as vast. Chukar, sage grouse, Huns, and snowcock come to mind when BLM is mentioned.
There are a few things to consider when hunting BLM lands, most particularly having legal access to hunt the land. Some public lands are completely surrounded by private lands. If there is no legal access through the private land, such as a designated county road, then hunters need permission to cross the private land. There is no guaranteed access. It is the hunter’s responsibility to know their location, so the use of maps, GPS units, or OnX is vital.
The other issue usually associated with BLM lands is dealing with the “checker-boarded” parcels of public and private lands. When the only place tracts of public land touch is at a corner, it may seem logical to “step over” the corner from one piece of public land to another. However, it is illegal to cross public land at boundary corners.
Designated Wilderness areas offer the highest level of protection to wild lands in the U.S. These lands are pristine and remote. If wingshooters are looking for solitude, then Designated Wilderness areas are the place to backpack and hike into, setup bird camp in the form of lightweight tents, and step out of from the campsite and hunt. Bird hunters will not find roads, permanent structures, or any kind of development. Vehicles are barred from wilderness areas entirely, to some extent including mountain bikes or other “mechanized transport.”
An important and confusing aspect about Designated Wilderness areas is that they can be managed by a variety of agencies based on jurisdiction. Some fall under the National Park Service, others the BLM, Forest Service, or Fish and Wildlife Service. Hunting regulations seem to be in line with the managing agency. Hunters venturing into these areas need to do their research.
Types of State Land
Hunters usually associate “state” lands with State Parks, Wildlife Areas (WA), or Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs). State Parks are present in every state and rules for hunting vary from park to park and from state to state. Wildlife Management Areas and WAs are protected lands set aside for the conservation of wildlife and for recreational activities involving wildlife.
Private Land, Public Access
Private lands with public access are part of state walk-in hunting programs which allow hunters to hunt on private land. In this case, the state pays landowners for public access, which in turn creates more hunting opportunities and increases wildlife habitat. The walk-in program exists in many states, sometimes with different names but with the same concept. Tracts vary in size from as few as 40 acres to several thousand in size. The types of upland birds vary on these lands, depending on their size and the type of habitat. Bird hunters can encounter quail, pheasants, prairie chickens, sharp-tails, doves, and more.
The private land public access program entails some simple key elements:
- Inclusion into the program is based on private landowner enrollment into the program.
- Private land is made available for hunting only (no camping, target shooting, horseback riding, etc.).
- The state makes payments to the landowner, usually based on acreage and land quality.
- Access to hunting areas is only by walk-in.
- Land borders are identified by specialized signage.
- Direct permission from the landowner to enter land is not usually required.
Kansas’s walk-in program, known as Walk In Hunting Access (WIHA), was started in 1995 and now boasts over a million acres accessible to hunters. The program has been modeled by many other states.
Prior to accessing walk-in properties, hunters should confirm if the land is still enrolled because owners can remove their land at any time. State atlases and interactive websites are a good source of information gathering for traveling wingshooters.
Many of the lands are also enrolled and fall under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which is a land conservation program administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA). In exchange for a yearly rental payment, farmers and landowners who enroll into the program agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality. Contracts for land enrolled in CRP are 10-15 years in length. The long-term goal of the program is to re-establish valuable land cover to help improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and reduce loss of wildlife habitat.
Check Public Land Regulations and Laws
The list provided above is not all-inclusive and bird hunters should research the state and lands they want to access for hunting. Contacting the local public lands management office is important to ensure that hunting is done in appropriate designated areas. No matter the type of public land accessed, whether state or federal, hunting must be done in accordance with federal and state regulations and laws.
There are plenty of public lands open for access to hunting. With so many independently managed lands at the federal and state level, and a vast network of programs allowing public access to private lands, finding a place is easier than you may think. As with hunting, a little work is needed to find what you are looking for, but with some research, experience, and boot leather, the rewards for hunting public land can be great.
Edgar Castillo is a recently retired law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. He also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Edgar longs for the colors of autumn and frosty, winter days so he can explore the landscapes in search of wild birds in wild places. His passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.