Doug Leier: Habitat is key for all wildlife populations

Doug Leier: Habitat is key for all wildlife populations

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Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Contact him at

WEST FARGO — I was at the meat locker and struck up a conversation about the arrival of deer and reports from lucky hunters this fall who drew and filled out deer tags in North Dakota. Much like an ugly cold front coming in from the northwest, the conversation shifted to pheasants and how the spring snow and summer rains of 2022 helped pull farmers and ranchers out of a drought and put better harvests in the trash and, in this case, wild game in the freezer and locker plant.

The underlying theme is weather and habitat.

Time will do what time does. Habitat, on the other hand, is one of the variables where a little more impact is possible.

From selling licenses and excise taxes, to joining clubs and volunteering, hunters have always stood up to try and improve the world of the outdoors.

“How can we help?” and “What can we do?” are frequently asked questions of wildlife managers and administrators.

Although money is not necessarily the answer to all habitat problems, it is part of the formula that helps maintain, create, or improve habitat. And, ultimately, it helps increase the harvest for hunters now and in the future.

Following the 2015 legislative session, unsuccessful applicants to the North Dakota Stag Gun Lottery could, for the first time, donate their refunds to the Game and Fish’s Private Land Open to Sportsmen program. Department, better known as PLOTS.

In 2017, lawmakers approved another bill that allowed resident hunters of deer guns, muzzleloaders, pronghorn, and turkeys to purchase a bonus point for the same fee as the respective license. In 2019, hunters could donate directly to PLOTS

Thousands of hunters who have failed the gun lottery in the past five years have donated their license fees to the PLOTS program.

According to the latest figures, this year more than $62,600 has been donated to the PLOTS program and nearly $600,000 in just four years. Approximately $108,000 has been generated from deer gun bonus point purchases since 2017. In total, there are more than a dozen donation categories, which total over $1.3 million.

“We mainly focus on developing good winter cover, such as trees and grasslands that provide shelter in the warmer months for adult females with fawns,” said Kevin Kading, section chief of private Game and Fish Department lands.

Compared to the amount of deer habitat lost over the past decade, Kading said the program is not an immediate panacea.

“It’s a start…and we have to start somewhere,” he said. “If the dollar amount increases, we can leverage those dollars with other funds, such as the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund and the federal Pittman-Robertson funds to do bigger projects.”

Kading said Game and Fish staff are careful about choosing sites for planting grass and trees.

“We try to place new plantings in areas close to other wildlife habitats,” he said. “We want to tie into the existing habitat bases that already exist, instead of, say, creating a little piece of habitat in the middle of nothing.

“This planted habitat on PLOTS land benefits deer and other animals, and deer just don’t stay on PLOTS,” he added. “If you can help them get through the winter and provide places for deer to have fawns in the spring, hunters elsewhere will benefit for years to come.”

It should be noted that this program is not the Department of Fish and Game’s first endeavor in creating wildlife habitat on PLOTS lands.

“PLOTS has developed thousands of acres of habitat with private landowners over the years,” Kading said. “What we’re talking about here is an additional increase in funding that goes directly to creating deer habitat and access.”

All hunters deserve thanks for contributing time and resources to improve habitat and access.

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