Where are you going to hunt this year? More and more, that's literally becoming the million-dollar question whitetail hunters face each year.
To be sure, there is a lot that goes into a successful hunt, from scouting and selecting stand locations to proper scent control and plain old luck. According to statistics, however, perhaps the toughest challenge modern deer hunters face is simply finding a decent place to hunt.
In its 2011 Whitetail Report (available at www.qdma.com), the Quality Deer Management Association identified hunter access as a key issue. Access was also the theme of this year's Southeast Deer Study Group meeting. It was no coincidence one of the speakers was Kip Adams, QDMA's director of education and outreach. In his presentation, Adams highlighted the issues and described some of the options available.
Certainly, public land is a viable hunting option, but the amount and quality of available public hunting ground varies considerably across the nation. Large areas of public land are the exception, not the rule. According to Adams, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission owns and manages 2.9 million acres, leases 365,000 acres and has public/private land agreements on 364,000 acres. But the average for all Southeastern states is only 1.8 million acres per state. And that average goes down as you leave the region. In the Northeast, the Pennsylvania Game Commission owns and manages 1.4 million acres and has three cooperative programs with private landowners providing another 4.2 million acres. Heading north, that drops off precipitously, and by the time you reach Maine, 97 percent of the forested land is privately owned.
The most recent (2006) National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, showed 80 percent of big-game hunters hunted private lands, while only 16 percent hunted exclusively on public lands (some hunted both). However, those results included big-game hunters from Western states where public land ranges from 58-80 percent, versus a 6-16 percent range in whitetail-dominated Eastern states. That means the proportion of those hunting whitetails on public land is probably even lower than what the survey reports.
Many hunters perceive public hunting ground as overcrowded and heavily hunted — not exactly a quality experience. That is certainly the case in some areas, but not all, particularly when it comes to bowhunting. I've found quality public-land bowhunting in numerous states, including Massachusetts, Ohio, West Virginia, Illinois and Kansas, to name a few. It's out there if you put in the effort.
Still, the majority of what's out there is privately owned; and gaining access to it can be a significant challenge. Increasingly, more land is being posted and put off limits to hunting by landowners citing poor hunter behavior and concerns over safety and liability. Meanwhile, increasing demand is driving up the cost of quality hunting property. With few exceptions, the days of crossing property boundaries at will are a thing of the past. There are, however, still options for accessing private land.
Government Sponsored Access: Several government agencies and programs are working to maintain or increase public access to private land. One of the first such programs was Kansas' Walk-In Hunting Areas, which has since served as a model for others to follow. State agency personnel work with private landowners willing to open some or all of their land to public access. For some, a reduction in deer or other crop-damaging wildlife species is incentive enough. Several states, including Idaho, Kansas, Utah and Wyoming, actually compensate landowners for providing free public hunting access.
The Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP), run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, provides a financial incentive for owners and operators of privately held farm, ranch and forest land who voluntarily provide access to hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts. To qualify, landowners are expected to provide quality habitat to sustain wildlife and public use. Through the VPA-HIP, 17 public-access programs in 16 states will receive grants totaling $11.8 million this year.
Lease: Leasing is another common, though somewhat controversial, access strategy. It will cost you a little money. But it provides financial incentive to landowners to open land for hunting and gives you and your partners more control over the land and the quality of the hunting on it, which can include management programs. However, it limits hunting opportunities to lease holders and can displace local hunters.
Leasing is not as widespread or popular as you might think. According to the 2006 survey, only 6.9 percent of U.S. hunters leased land, mostly in the Southeast. Furthermore, the number of hunters leasing land declined 14 percent, and the area leased declined 4 percent from 2001-2006.
Ownership: A more costly option, but one that gives you far more control, is outright ownership. And for better or worse, it seems to be the latest trend. According to Adams, from 1991-2006, the number of sportsmen owning land for hunting increased 56 percent, and as of 2006, 1.3 million hunters owned more than 134 million acres, or about 100 acres each for that purpose. During the same period, the number of hunters leasing land declined 11 percent.
Increasingly, the future of hunting will depend on access to private land. The best option, for those with the means, is outright purchase. The rest of us, in most cases, must rely on landowners willing to grant access in one way or another. Both wildlife agency personnel and private hunting groups can go a long way toward ensuring that by establishing and supporting landowner education and outreach programs that emphasize safety and promote ethical hunting behavior.