With public land in short supply, hunting leases are becoming more common every year. While the concept of a hunting lease is pretty basic, the details of one are anything but. In essence however, a hunting lease is an agreement between a private landowner and a hunter, which specifies the terms permitting the sportsman to come onto the property and hunt. In this article, we'll be looking at a number of aspects involved in hunting leases, including what's generally contained within a lease, who should be consulted in the process of drawing up a lease, how much should be charged for a lease and some of the pros and cons of the practice.
Modern hunting leases first caught on in the southern United States with some of the earliest examples occurring in Texas in the 1930s. As public access to land has grown increasingly scarce, the practice has achieved astronomical new levels. Between 1989 and 2000, the total amount of money spent by U.S. sportsmen to lease hunting grounds doubled, reaching $625 million dollars in 2000 [source: Burden]. A 2001 survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that 982,000 hunters in the country leased hunting land, averaging about 229 acres each at an average rate of $2.27 per acre [source: Taylor].
And why are all these hunters shelling out hundreds of dollars apiece just to lease a little patch of land? There are a number of potential motivating factors. For example, when hunting season opens, what public land is available for hunting can turn into quite a hotspot. If hunters lease private land, they have some say about the hunting conditions, whether this means less interference from other sportsmen or a less hectic and higher quality hunt. Some believe they achieve a richer fair-chase hunting experience on leased land, and others are looking for hunting grounds with bigger or more exotic game than they could find on public lands near them.
Whatever the reason, leases are often the way to go when hunting season opens. On the next page, we'll take a look at the different kinds of leases a landowner might offer.
Types of Hunting Leases
There are several categories hunting leases can fall into. Here's a breakdown of some frequent scenarios:
Non-Fee Access: The most basic and traditional method of hunting on private property does not involve charging a fee for access to land. These can be verbal or written agreements that hold the potential to help out both parties. Landowners -- often farmers -- are spared from having their crops become a buffet for the local wildlife, and hunters are able reach game that otherwise wouldn't have been available.
Exchange of Services: In some cases, landowners don't charge hunters to hunt on their land, but they do request a service of them in return. This request might be as simple as keeping an eye out for trespassers or something a little more intensive like helping manage the grounds. Hunters might pitch in by repairing fences, clearing up debris or maintaining food plots for wildlife.
Fee Hunting: There's a growing trend, however, for landowners to charge hunters a monetary fee to hunt on their property and this is for a couple of reasons. While getting assistance containing wildlife populations within the habitat's carrying capacity, landowners can also maximize their return from the land or in some cases, turn a hobby into a sideline business. And last but not least, many charge for leases simply because the demand is there. A landowner planning to charge for a lease has a couple of options.
- Daily Hunting Leases: Daily leases usually tend to be less formal hunting leases. Because the hunters will not be spending a great deal of time on the property, the lease agreement typically doesn't need to be as rigorous and the landowner doesn't need to be as selective when choosing hunters. However, since the hunters also won't have much time to acquaint themselves with the property, daily leases often include aspects such as guide services, hunting dogs and transportation. Supporting many of these leases can be labor intensive, but it also has the potential to be the most lucrative path -- and the most likely jumping off point into a commercial hunting outfit.
- Short-Term Hunting Leases: Generally weekly or seasonal in length, short-term leases are also ideal for landowners who want to host multiple hunters on their property throughout the year. Like daily leases, some services (including lodgings) might need to be provided, and these types of leases are recommended while hunters and the landowner get to know one another, before they consider entering into a more long-term lease.
- Long-Term Hunting Leases: Long-term leases are very common and generally span either a year or several years. In this setup, the hunter (or group of hunters) typically has exclusive use of the property during all hunting seasons. These leases often work well because both parties are interested in the ongoing health of the land and its animal inhabitants. A hunter might contribute by putting up a rough shelter, tree stand or other structure, paying a farmer to leave some crops unharvested for feed, or creating wildlife resources such as watering spots, shelter belts or wind breaks.
Another way leases can be tweaked is by which species they cover. For example, even though many hunting seasons overlap, a lease can dictate if a hunter can shoot all eligible game or if he or she is limited to a specific type such as deer or turkey.
Considerations While Drawing Up Hunting Lease Agreements
Although the concept of a hunting lease is pretty basic, there's a laundry list of considerations to keep in mind when drawing one up. That's because leases are legal documents that serve important purposes. They articulate the expectations of both parties and they serve to protect the interests of both parties. Hunting leases should be very clear so there are no misunderstandings and any problems can be ironed out smoothly.
Among the many important points hunting leases should touch on are the names of all the parties involved, a full description of the land available for hunting, what specific activities -- hunting or otherwise -- are and are not allowed, when the lease begins and ends, what can cause its early termination and how that termination would be handled, how and when payments are made, what the landowner will provide and how the hunter and the landowner plan to communicate.
Other considerations a landowner will want to contemplate when planning a lease include whether to allow subleasing; whether to set a hunting quota, and if so, whether to add a provision for adjusting that quota at a later date; whether hunters can make improvements or alterations to the property and whether they want to be notified when the hunter is onsite. Questions that can be asked are: Does the landowner want to set no-hunting days, specific shooting hours or no-shooting zones? Limit vehicle access or the number of hunters and guests allowed on the property at one time? Restrict the environmental impact the hunter can make on the land or just require him or her to leave everything as he or she originally found it?
Besides the many basic items that need to be deliberated when constructing a lease, landowners will also want to safeguard themselves against liability issues, which is the major reason attorneys and insurance agents can be a huge asset during the process. Beyond soliciting the advice of professionals to get an insurance policy and a solid liability clause included in the lease, there're a couple of other steps landowners can take to protect their interests. For instance, they can ban dangerous equipment, make safety improvements around the property -- documenting them in case an issue ever comes up -- and set up a limited liability corporation in case they're sued. They can also require hunters to show proof of insurance and hunter safety training.
Examples of other important clauses are ones detailing what happens if the land is unintentionally altered or the hunter causes damage to the property, and how potential disputes would be arbitrated.
Prices of Hunting Leases
At this point, it probably doesn't come as a surprise that setting a price on a hunting lease is no cut-and-dry matter. Many factors go into lease pricing, so it's a good idea to do a little research beforehand. Comparison shopping to find out what similar properties are charging is beneficial, and this is one of the ways extension agents (along with bankers, real estate agents and farm managers) can be of assistance. Brokers can also act as go-betweens during the dealings and assist with setting the price. While there are some bidding wars and dirty dealings in the world of hunting leases, educating yourself and getting some solid advice can go along way.
Now let's take a closer look at some of the aspects that influence the price of hunting leases. Many of these are intuitive, but some may come as a surprise:
- The location, accessibility and acreage of the property
- The aesthetics and maturity of the land
- The quality, diversity and size of the wildlife
- The length of time the lease is in effect for and the amount of time the owner spends on land management
- The services being offered (whether by the landowner or the hunter) and the amenities on the property
- The number of hunters using the land and the amount of wildlife the land can support
- The activity on neighboring properties and the amount of trespassers frequenting the area
All of these factors -- even the ones a property owner can't necessarily control -- can have an effect on the price tag of a hunting lease, so it can be a little daunting for beginners to figure out what's a fair market rate. But whether you're the landowner (the lessor) or the hunter (the lessee) finding a fair compromise is important in the transaction, especially since if everything goes well it can be the beginning of a lasting and rewarding partnership.
On the next page, we'll take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of hunting leases, and how land can be improved to get a better deal.
Hunting Leases: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
While hunting leases can provide a great source of supplemental income for landowners and a better opportunity to hunt for sportsmen, there are pros and cons to these contracts. On the good side, hunting on private land can harmonize with smart forestry and agricultural practices and help keep wildlife populations within sustainable levels. It can also increase the quality of a hunting experience and enable similar recreational activities like camping, fishing and wildlife photography.
But matters don't always go so well, which is one of the reasons experts recommend landowners request references from hunters before they enter into a lease. Sportsmen can overhunt the fauna or damage the flora, appear on the property at unwanted times and cause complaints from neighbors. Everything from litter to liability issues can crop up during a hunting lease, so it's best to be sure about someone before he or she is allowed the run of the land. Property owners, too, can fail to honor the agreement, so careful consideration should be taken by both parties.
But enough doom and gloom, let's talk about what landowners and helpful hunters can do to improve private hunting land. It's good to keep an inventory of the wildlife and habitat characteristics to help monitor the amount of game. Right along with this, steadfast and detailed harvest records (the amount of game killed each year) can help track how the different species are faring and help determine leasing and pricing plans. Another important land management practice is taking the time to understand how the lifecycles of animals and plants of a certain habitat function and interact. Once this knowledge is understood, steps can be taken to improve the land to better support the wildlife population.
In some states, programs are available to help develop habitats, offering technical advice, financial assistance or both. Some practical methods for improving game conditions include creating nesting areas, shelter belts, wind breaks and food plots, along with installing water sources and planting native plants. The healthier the animal population, the more successful the hunting will be.
If landowners are interested in attracting not just more sport but more sportsmen as well, they can do this in a couple of ways. One promising strategy is to increase the amenities on the property. Building a shelter can give hunters somewhere to store their gear or get out of the rain; a lodge can make weekly or seasonal leases more attractive. These are also effective ways to bridge communication -- hunters can leave notes detailing their activities and landowners can drop them a line if anything new comes up. Another good strategy is to offer guide services or maps. Giving a little advice and a nudge in the right direction is often appreciated.
Our advice? Go along that trail until you get over the second bridge, then head about 25 paces into the brush and wait. If you're patient, that's where you'll find a link that'll take you to the next page and lots of other hunting articles -- some with game that might not be quite what you're used to.
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More Great Links
- Burden, Dan. "Hunting Lease Profile." Agricultural Marketing Resource Center of Iowa State University. (12/2/2008) http://www.agmrc.org/commodities__products/agritourism/hunting_lease_profile.cfm
- Miller, Gene. "Suggestions for Developing Recreational Wildlife Enterprises." Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. 1998. (12/2/2008) http://www.agmrc.org/media/cms/pwd_lf_w7000_1149_902172D602880.pdf
- Pike, John. "Fee Hunting: Opportunities for Farmers and Rural Landowners." University of Illinois Extension. 2007. (12/2/2008) http://web.extension.uiuc.edu/agritourism/files/fee_hunting.pdf
- Stribling, H. Lee. "Hunting Leases and Permits." Alabama Cooperative Extension System. 7/1994. (12/2/2008) http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-0541/
- Taylor, Mykel. "Hunting Leases in Kansas." Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service. 12/2/2008. http://www.agmanager.info/farmmgt/land/lease/hunting/hunting_lease.pdf
- Yarrow, Greg. "Developing a Hunting Lease: Considerations, Options, and Realities." Clemson University. (12/2/2008) http://www.naturalresources.umd.edu/Pages/Hunting_Lease.html