By Curtis Niedermier
Diverse species in a variety of habitats is the best way to describe the upland hunting experience in Kansas. To illustrate: In the past three seasons I have made eight trips to the Sunflower State and hunted publicly accessible land in four of seven small-game management units for four species of upland birds in months spanning September to January. Still I have only scratched the surface of what a public-land upland hunter can do there.
While Kansas offers a number of state- and federally owned public hunting areas for freelance bird hunters, the real draw in terms of public access is 1.2 million acres of private property enrolled in the state’s Walk-In Hunting Access (WIHA) program.
WIHA (pronounced “wee-haw”), which was piloted in 1995, offers a cash incentive to landowners to open their properties to licensed hunters, who can access them for free. Wildlife Division Assistant Director Wes Sowards, who coordinates WIHA for the Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Department, says about 75 percent of the funds for WIHA come from the Wildlife Restoration Fund, while the remainder are provided for by license sales.
Early on, says Sowards, the program focused on expanding upland-hunter access and keyed on Conservation Reserve Program lands mostly in the western part of the state. Since then WIHA has evolved to also provide more opportunities for waterfowl, turkey and deer hunters. It has become more geographically diverse, too, with land enrolled across the state.
“CRP makes up about 60 percent of our [WIHA] lands statewide,” Sowards said. “Now we’re taking rangeland, riparian areas and agricultural lands with some sort of hunting opportunity. We’ve really opened it up a lot more than some other states, realizing the dynamic landscape we have here in Kansas.”
A team of 29 field biologists evaluates WIHA applications and selects properties to enroll based on criteria such as proximity to major population centers where hunter access is more difficult and the size and type of property (rangeland, wetland and so on). Most importantly, the program favors quality habitat.
Kansas has some of the best public-land bobwhite quail hunting in the US. Bobs can be hunted in sandhills pocked with plum thickets in select western areas, patches of weeds and forbs within CRP fields, or brushy fencerows that intersect ag land. Pheasants are most prevalent in the grasslands of the central and western thirds of the state, where a bird dog with real stamina is invaluable. About three-quarters of the state is open to prairie chicken hunting, and there is enough overlap in the birds’ ranges that a skilled pointer could lock up on all three species not just in one day, but in one field. Bonus opportunities are found in pockets of habitat that harbor snipe, woodcock and scaled quail, plus there’s great early season dove hunting.
Traveling hunters can access the digital WIHA Atlas online or pick up a hardcopy from a Kansas license vendor. The Atlas includes rules and a map for hunting WIHA land. There’s also a new limited-access iWIHA (“i” for “interactive”) program in 20 eastern counties designed to manage hunting pressure in high-demand areas. Through the Kansas iSportsman online permitting system, hunters can sign in and guarantee they’ll be the only ones on those properties.
It’s just another way that Kansas has figured out how to diversify its hunting opportunities. As if having more than a million acres to hunt a smorgasbord of species wasn’t already enough.