- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2017

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - More land for hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing will be available to Oklahoma sportsmen and women beginning Sept. 1.

That’s when the Oklahoma Land Access Program begins through the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, a program that pays private landowners to allow public access to their properties for recreational use such as hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing.

Where the properties will be and how many there will be remain to be seen. State wildlife officials have been negotiating with private landowners, but no legal agreements have been finalized, The Oklahoman (https://bit.ly/2iD0QF4 ) reports.

“We have a list of interested landowners,” said Jeff Tibbits, the Wildlife Department’s biologist for the Oklahoma Land Access Program. “We have received a lot of interest. We are waiting to sign people up just for the time being.

“We are still meeting with landowners. That is going to wrap up this month. We are meeting with landowners in central Oklahoma, southeast Oklahoma. Those are the two remaining meetings. We are gathering their thoughts and feedback to try and make this program successful for landowners.

“If a property offers good hunting and fishing opportunities, we are interested in it.”

State wildlife officials hope to eventually enroll 50,000 acres in the program across the state. Sportsmen and women will have “walk-in” access to the properties, meaning no vehicles will be allowed on the land, including all-terrain vehicles.

The Wildlife Department is now in the process of establishing regulations for the “walk-in” properties - which will be similar to the rules on the agency’s wildlife management areas - during the agency’s 2017 review of hunting and fishing regulations.

Through a federal grant administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Services, the Wildlife Department essentially will lease the properties from the private landowners for public access.

Landowners would be paid at a rate comparable to what the market value is for private leases in their area and depending on what recreational activities they are willing to allow on their land, Tibbits said.

“We do identify the local (lease) rates,” Tibbits said. “They do vary across the state. When you are near the metro the rates increase tremendously, whereas out in the Panhandle the pressure is a lot less.”

Landowners can choose to allow public use of their land for any or all of the following activities: hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing.

They can choose to just allow archery and shotgun hunting only on their land, hunting in September only (for dove, geese and teal) or spring turkey hunting only.

“What option they choose influences the lease rate,” Tibbits said. “Also, there is additional compensation for landowners enrolled in CRP or DMAP or other conservation programs. We want to reward landowners who have been good stewards of conservation.

“There will be additional compensation for the landowner who doesn’t disc their field for the first week of dove season.”

State wildlife officials hope to create more public hunting and fishing opportunities that occur now mostly on private lands in the state, such as pheasant hunting in western Oklahoma.

There are very few public hunting grounds in the state where bird hunters can pursue pheasant and limited public areas where anglers can gain access to streams to fish for smallmouth bass.

“We would really like to get some close-to-metro dove hunting,” Tibbits said. “We would like to increase pheasant hunting opportunities and also smallmouth (bass) fishing opportunities in the eastern part of the state through the streams access. The goal is to find the niche that hasn’t been filled.”

Permits to access the properties initially will be free to Oklahoma sportsmen and women, but a fee may be charged in the future if the Wildlife Department doesn’t receive additional federal funds to continue it.

Tibbits was hired by the Wildlife Department after the agency received a $2.62 million grant to start the program.

It is the first time Oklahoma has tapped into the money - Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program grants - which comes from the most recent Farm Bill passed by Congress.

Many other states already use the federal funds to increase public access for hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers. Kansas’ walk-in hunting areas are very popular, Texas has 38,000 permit holders enrolled and Missouri is expanding its land access program, Tibbits said.

“These programs are very popular west of the Mississippi River,” Tibbits said. “They are less common east of the Mississippi because lease rates tend to be too high to be cost-effective.”

The first question from landowners about the program normally is about the liability they would incur by allowing such activities on their properties, Tibbits said.

Two Oklahoma statutes limit the landowners’ liability through the Oklahoma Land Access Program, Tibbits said. That liability protection is not provided in those statutes for commercial leases, he said.

“There are exceptions written into those two statutes that address a public access program administered by the state,” Tibbits said.

Landowners are interested in enrolling in the program because they are guaranteed payment by the leaseholder, which in this case is the Wildlife Department, Tibbits said.

“Additionally, we interact with the public so the landowner doesn’t have to, and that is very attractive to landowners,” Tibbits said.

Tibbits doesn’t know how many acres will be open to sportsmen on Sept. 1, but there are landowners already waiting to enroll.

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Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com

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