onX Hunt and South Dakota Set the PATH in the Right Direction

A new public-private-nonprofit partnership is poised to supercharge access and conservation in South Dakota by adding 10,000 acres to the state’s walk-in program in its first year. Powered by $250,000 from onX Hunt and Travel South Dakota and administered by Pheasants Forever, the Public Access to Habitat (PATH) program adds up-front financial incentives for landowners in an effort to accelerate and expand enrollment in public access and conservation programs in the state that boasts one of the finest walk-in programs in the nation.

By offering newly enrolling private landowners an additional up-front payment of $25 per acre, PATH adds to incentives already in place via state agencies to provide a more competitive conservation option for landowners. For hunters, these acres are added to accessible acreage via the state’s walk-in program with 10-year agreements in place to help create sustainable and sustained hunting opportunities. 

“When we think back to the heyday of pheasant and upland hunting decades ago, those days often were correlated with boom times in federal conservation programs like CRP(Conservation Reserve Program) enrollments or the predecessor to the Farm Bill,” said Jake Hanson, development director at Pheasants Forever. “We don’t live in a day and age when CRP payments can out-compete what you can make being a producer on your own land. CRP just isn’t competitive enough.”

Hunter with a hunting dog in a field

Unique Partnerships, Big Impacts

But by leveraging a coalition of private support from companies like onX Hunt and nontraditional state support via Travel South Dakota adding dollars to the pool, the dollars and cents of habitat conservation and hunting access can get a lot more competitive. 

“Landowners receive payment from the state agency and this payment from PATH to give them a push to make it almost as competitive as what they could do [otherwise],” Hanson said. “Combine this with a ‘farm the best, conserve the rest’ type of model and gosh, think about what you can do with your lands where you’re putting your marginal lands into conservation programs, which is not only going to help your way of life if you’re a producer with water quality and soil health and erosion prevention, but also what you’re doing for wildlife and enrolling in public access. These are the programs that work in 2023.”

These programs also provide considerable economic benefit to rural communities’ economies that benefit from hunters—and their wallets—traveling to areas known for great bird habitat and hunting access. This is the idea behind Pheasants Forever’s mantra of “Creating communities committed to conservation.”  

“What we know for a fact is when you have more quality habitat on the landscape, you have more abundant and healthy populations of wildlife,” Hanson said. “And when you have more abundant and healthy populations of wildlife in your county or area, hunters say ‘I wanna go hunt there. Let’s make a trip to Huron or wherever that might be in South Dakota.’”

hunter and hunting dog with a pheasant

onX Hunt’s Biggest Access Investment

It’s that multi-layered impact that inspired onX Hunt to make PATH the largest-ever single project investment for its Access and Stewardship program. Private land access programs are particularly critical in states outside the West and the chance to participate in a partnership with other entities to open a lot of acres in a single state offered a way to maximize impact.

“Pressure on public hunting land is increasing and quality bird habitat is on the decline. We believe the PATH program will create a profound and immediate impact to combat this trend,” said onX Hunt General Manager Cliff Cancelosi. “onX Hunt is committed to funding time and money with its conservation partners to ensure there are public hunting opportunities available for years to come.”

And thanks to the minimum 10-year agreements that are part of the PATH program, these 10,000 acres will remain accessible for a decade to come and set the benchmark for bolstering the program in subsequent years as Pheasants Forever and its partners look to create a recurring funding model to replicate the goal of 10,000 new acres per year in the future.

South Dakota public access walk-in program statistics

Critical Walk-In Access

onX found in a recent report that there are over 30 million acres of private land that are opened up each season to hunters across the country via unique “voluntary public access programs” (many are called “walk-in” programs). South Dakota’s walk-in programs account for 28.4% of the state’s huntable acreage, adding over 1.4 million acres of habitat for hunters in the state.

With 17.8 huntable acres per licensed resident hunter and some of the finest pheasant hunting in the country with more than 1.15 million harvested in the 2022-2023 season (and a strong outlook for the upcoming season with above-average moisture creating ideal nesting and brood rearing conditions, per Pheasants Forever’s forecast), South Dakota makes the perfect spot for an innovative program like PATH to build on a strong foundation.

“Not only are these acres doing good for wildlife and environmental conditions, but also impacting rural economies across South Dakota,” Hanson said. “Everybody wins.”

To find out more about enrollment and access opportunities, visit pheasantsforever.org/path.

Celebrate the Season Opener with onX Hunt

Kick off pheasant season with onX Hunt and Pheasants Forever from 5:30-8:30 pm October 12, at Sioux Falls’ Remedy Brewing Company. Join us for happy hour beers, giveaways, a live recording of The Flush Podcast starting at 7 pm, and more information on the PATH program. Giveaways include a Weatherby Orion SxS 20 gauge, Silencer Central Banish suppressor, (5) Free Tax Stamps, (3) barrel threading, Final Rise Summit vest, Ruffland Performance Kennels, Purina Pro Plan food, Lucky Duck intermediate kennel, onX Hunt memberships, and more!