Finding a place to hunt is becoming increasingly difficult.
My neighbor came to me recently with news that hit me like a cold slap in the face. “It looks like they’re going to sell that piece behind me.”
That “piece” was a parcel of land that held special meaning to me. I’d spent more than 20 years learning it intimately. I’d witnessed my son take his first deer there, and then his first buck. Heck, I’d killed several good deer there myself.
The landowner was an absentee who lived on the other side of the country. He’d asked me to look after the place — a task I relished — and told me I was welcome to hunt it and even offered to let me do a little habitat management if I chose.
I’d started to think of it as “mine,” and now it looked like I was going to lose it.
It’s an increasingly familiar story, although the specifics vary a little from place to place.
Perhaps the landowner of your little piece of paradise decided it was time to cash in on his investment and develop or sell the land.
Or maybe the land changed hands, and the new owners had new ideas, or you were a leaseholder who got priced out by a competitor.
I’ll bet my best deer rifle that many, if not most of you, have lost hunting ground in recent years.
Survey results show that lack of access is among the principle reasons hunters spend less time afield or sometimes give up the sport altogether. Attendees at the recent Whitetail Summit in Missouri cited lack of access as one of the biggest threats to the future of deer hunting.
Hunters are a resourceful bunch, and the more dedicated members of our fraternity will always find a way to enjoy our avocation. But will the next generation have a place to hunt?
Public vs. Private
Public land represents one option, although it’s not without drawbacks. One is regional differences. Many Western states have ample public land. I’ve hunted deer on public land in Colorado, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming where I never saw another hunter that wasn’t in my group. Back East, it’s a different story. Public lands are fewer, smaller and often overcrowded. Access exists, but quality is sometimes lacking.
No public parcel is ever entirely safe. There are always competing interests, some of which work aggressively to remove hunters from public land. Several years ago, my state sold what had been a wildlife management area in the most populous region to a nonprofit organization with an understanding the non-developed areas would remain open for public use.
They managed and allowed hunting for several years until it became too much of a burden on their staff. Then, they simply abolished it, effectively taking away several hundred acres of huntable land.
Pseudo-public land provides something of middle ground between public and private. Some states have lease or walk-in access programs where commercial or private landowners receive financial incentives for allowing public hunting access. It provides an opportunity for access to private land that might otherwise not exist, but no system is perfect.
The status of such parcels can change from year to year. Also, it is widely rumored that outfitters scout walk-in areas and, if they’re any good, approach the landowners and offer to lease them for a higher price.
Ultimately, private land is the key. Recent surveys show that only 16 percent of big game hunters hunt exclusively on public land. Approximately 80 percent of big game hunting in the U.S. occurs on private land, and opportunities are dwindling. The reasons are many and varied.
As the human population continues to sprawl across the landscape, it gobbles up open space. Land gets posted, and even where it’s not, hunting becomes unsafe or impractical. There’s also a move toward more privatization, mostly through leasing.
Access to private land varies considerably across the length and breadth of our country. At the recent Whitetail Summit in March, Dr. Brett Wright from Clemson University identified five landowner access policies.
A prohibitive policy means no hunting at all, and is often the result of anti-hunting sentiment or sometimes the myth of landowner liability. Laws vary from state to state, but in most cases a landowner cannot be held liable for injuries that occur when they allow hunters on their land — unless they charge a fee.
Under an exclusive policy, people purchase land for their own hunting rights. It’s an ideal situation for those with the financial means the average hunter lacks. Those with less money might opt to lease land, pooling their resources in hopes of achieving more than they could on their own. Leasing also provides a financial incentive for the landowner.
Free access still exists in several forms. What Wright calls restricted access usually depends on friendship or kinship.
Last on his list is an open-with-permission policy, which is becoming less common due to concerns over liability and hunter behavior, as well as the financial incentives associated with other options like leasing.
One policy Wright failed to mention, probably because it is so rare, is implied consent. I’m old enough to remember a time when access was limited only by how far you could walk. The only land we couldn’t hunt was posted land, and there was very little of that. Outside of northern New England and perhaps some parts of the Upper Midwest, there are very few places left where that’s still the case.
All of this paints a pretty discouraging picture. Fortunately, there are still reasons for hope. Much is already being done, and there’s plenty more that can be done, to ensure those who come after us will still have somewhere to hunt.
The tide seems to be turning on anti-hunting sentiment, thanks in no small part to reality television. Also, the locavore movement has suddenly made it trendy to grow or hunt and harvest your own food. The key lies in public perception, which depends on educating the non-hunting public and always presenting a positive image.
In many ways, though, it boils down to money.
At the very least, we help the cause simply by purchasing a hunting license. License revenues pay for management programs, and many states now have land stamps, the proceeds of which go toward the purchase or lease of land for public access.
But if you want to ensure there’s a place to hunt for you, your children and their children, that’s not enough.
If you have the means, find a piece of ground you can call your own. Then become a good steward of the land and the wildlife living on it.
A good place to start is with one of the growing number of real estate brokers who specialize on hunting properties. If you don’t have the means to buy land outright, consider coordinating effort and resources with other like-minded individuals to go in on a lease, or join a hunting club. Here, too, a broker might be able to help.
Although urban sprawl gobbles up land, it can have a positive side effect, particularly for bowhunters. Deer thrive in and around people and dwellings, sometimes becoming a nuisance and a financial burden on landowners.
If your neighbors know you as a safe and ethical hunter, they might be willing to let you thin out a few of the problem animals.
It’s also becoming more common for groups of bowhunters to form cooperatives and make their services available to landowners with crop or depredation issues. Consulting a local biologist or warden can help, as they’re often the first ones called.
You can also work with municipalities, land trusts and other local groups that might be experiencing deer problems. Make an effort to show up and make your voice heard at public hearings involving hunting issues.
Don’t write off public land, even in the most crowded areas. I’ve interviewed several hunters who took record book bucks on public land in states like Massachusetts and Connecticut, and I’ve killed a few decent deer there myself.
Sometimes you just have to go the extra mile, figuratively and literally. Seek out smaller, obscure parcels that might get overlooked by other hunters, or hike off the roads and away from common access points on larger blocks. Sometimes just hunting on weekdays instead of weekends can make a difference.
Also bear in mind that state and federal land isn’t the only accessible public land. Towns, counties, local government agencies and even public utilities sometimes hold title to land that is open to hunting. Fewer hunters are aware of this or are willing to take the extra effort required to seek out such tracts.
Don’t dismiss private land, either. “Posted” doesn’t always mean no hunting. In some cases, it just means the landowner wants to know who is on their land. Get to know your neighbors, and don’t be afraid to ask. The worst they can say is no.
Sometimes offering to help with chores like baling hay or mending fences might earn some privileges. And, by all means, offer to share the bounty when you get a deer.
The future of access to quality hunting might not seem particularly bright, but even the darkest clouds can have silver linings.
As public access dwindles, organized groups of hunters, non-government agencies, nonprofit groups and even state and federal agencies are working even harder to preserve what exists, and in some cases create more open space.
Finding and keeping quality hunting land in the future might take more effort and money, but there will still be a place for those who seek it.
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This article was published in the November 2014 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.