Hunting Lease Profile
Daniel Burden, Program Coordinator International & Special Projects, Extension Value-added Agriculture Project and AgMRC, Iowa State University, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reviewed July 2014.
Few hunting, conservation or land-use issues are as controversial as the ongoing trend toward “lease hunting.” This is not a new concept. Hunting leases have been a common practice in some states for over half a century. For the landowner, farmers and ranchers, hunting leases are a means by which to generate additional income from wildlife resources that the landowners sustain through their crops and habitat maintenance. For the sportsperson, the growing number and prevalence of lease arrangements are an indication of diminishing public access opportunities and “highest-bidder” price wars that could exclude access to a lot of private land. Additionally, thriving game populations of many species rely on hunting to maintain their populations within the biological carrying capacity of the habitat. Also, big-game lease hunting tends to target trophy animals, requiring “cull” hunts or similar strategies for population control and removal of less desirable animals.
Land, wetland and stream habitats and wildlife resources are increasingly valuable as hunters become more willing to pay for access to trophy animals, exotic species, maintained numbers of stocked birds or a more exclusive or quality outdoor experience. Sportsperson interest groups have always stressed good hunter-landowner relations as a means to continue to have public access to private lands. However, most landowners realize that some sort of fee-based hunting allows them to utilize a wildlife resource in which they invest resources through their agricultural operation. Funds from lease or fee hunting can be used to supplement farm or ranch income or to provide cash for general habitat improvement (planting wind breaks, shelter belts or food plots; or providing water resources or feeders) or other uses.
In some states, public access hunting land is almost nonexistent. For example, in Texas 80 percent of the total acres in most counties are leased to sportspersons. A study a decade or so ago last decade by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found that the money spent by hunters to lease land doubled from 1989 to 2000 reached $625 million, a trend that has continued to today. The 2011 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation shows that land leasing and ownership is now at the $10,563 million; being spent by 2.94 million participants (8% of total sportspersons); averaging $282 “per spender,” and $3,600 “average per sportsperson.” Additionally, spending for membership in clubs (hunting preserves) was estimated at $1,223 million; being spent by 5.394 million participants (14 percent of sportspersons); averaging $30 per “per spender,” and $208 “average per sportsperson.” In 2001, 982,000 hunters spent an average of $635 each on leases, under the new reporting system is suggested that this number increased five-fold by 2011 ($3,600).
Many more hunters pay access fees for daily or seasonal access to private land. In the West, these daily or seasonal use fees are referred to as “trespass fees.” The use fee has long been a common practice in the Western states for elk, antelope and mule deer hunting. These informal arrangements often allow hunters or trout fishermen onto private land for one or several days of the hunting or trout season. These “cash-'n’-carry” deals are far inferior to a formal lease agreement and may have serious implications with respect to potential liability, declarable income for the landowner and other legal issues.
Formal lease agreements may take many forms: seasonal, year-round or by the day or week. The agreement may be tailored to individuals or a party of hunters. Revenue usually is directly related to the quality of the habitat, species availability and the overall quality of the outdoor experience. Some landowners have learned that fee-hunting or reserve-hunting operations are secondary profit centers that can be developed to provide substantial income. There are many examples of fee-hunting situations that have evolved into services that involve lodging, guide services, on-site transportation and game care, as well as non-hunting ecotourism activities that may include clay-bird shooting weekends, dog field trials or family retreats. In parts of the South and southern Midwest, a lease may simply be a contract for a day of traditional dove shooting that includes limited guiding, lunch and game cleaning. In all of these situations, some sort of contract that specifies user behavior and liability issues should be employed.
Much of the leasing activity in many states is a direct result of two factors: the state licensing system and competition for prime habitat (numbers or quality of hunt-able species). However, in those states having landowner-transferable licensing, the intervention of bidding wars between large, well-organized and well-funded outfitters has promoted a “sky’s-the-limit” mentality, especially in areas where trophy deer hunting is available. Many landowners assume that their transferable license will be sold for the same amount as those actively marketed through large, organized and well-connected outfitters. This is seldom the case. In many areas where bidding wars have occurred due to large outfitters booking prime property, landowners with less desirable or smaller parcels often are not only intentionally overlooked by the big outfitters, but their unreasonable price expectations that price long-standing clients out of the market can leave both the sportsperson client and the landowner high and dry. If these landowners expect a tenfold return on their lease because someone down the road is sad to be getting a premium, they may be surprised when they are still sitting on their unsold asset at the start of the deer or some other season
Additionally, some of the big outfitters are notorious for elevating lease and transferable tag prices to “run out” local guiding and similar smaller competition, leading to less competition for their clients for trophy animals, and eliminating competition for leases from local competitors. These outfitters may come into an area, use their resources to lock up a large area of adjoining parcels under seasonal or similar short-term leases, scout the best animals, and assist their clients in harvesting those animals and then move on to another area, perhaps in another state. The landowners are then left to fend for themselves until the number of trophy animals once again interests the big outfitter.
The most sustainable plan for most landowners is to take an active role in resource management, cooperatively hire their own game manager or work with a local guide and outfitter, usually a member of their community, who can assist them in developing a sustainable business. Repeat clients, part-time employment of local young people as helpers, active habitat management, poacher control and local revenue generation at cafes, hotels, bed and breakfasts, and game-processing cold-storage facilities are the marks of sustainable ventures.
Particularly with respect to deer hunting, a primary management focus should always be on maintaining the game population at or below environmentally sustainable levels to limit crop damage and animal mortality due to overcrowding. This can be a problem in areas where lease holders concentrate on “trophy” animals instead of “management” animals. Both need to be harvested. Trophy animals are those special individuals, management animals are the lesser males and females that need to be culled to limit population regeneration by reproduction and prevent potential herd increases that can lead to adverse human impacts or disease outbreaks. In the southern United States and some other areas of the country, it has long been widely accepted that leasing and integrated wildlife management are a part of any well-run timber or farming operation.
It should also be noted that lease agreements may start as supplemental income generators, but may in turn act as conduits into more lucrative agritourism operations. Many landowners have met clients who have become lifelong friends and lucrative business partners through initial lease contacts.
Develop a Business Plan
First of all, recognize that hunting is recreation, not simply the harvest of an animal. The value of the lease is directly proportional to hunter satisfaction. Most hunters are interested in the experience of the hunt, and that means a fair-chase experience with as little contact with other people as possible. In return for their payment, hunters may well expect exclusive rights to the property or some well-defined portion of the property while they or their party is present.
Fee hunting is a business and therefore requires a formal business contract, the lease. Obtain samples of various lease agreements and determine what is applicable to your operation. Then develop a lease document that articulates reasonable expectations from customers and articulates and protects your interests as a landowner. Determine the type of lease appropriate to your operation and recreational resources. The lease is not simply a “right of ingress” document; it is an opportunity for both parties to clearly inform one another of their responsibilities, expectations, rules and restrictions.
Price the lease according to local trends or perhaps engage the assistance of a lease service to assist with pricing and advertising. Usually a person can get a general idea of what leases are selling for by word-of-mouth inquiries in the general area. Another strategy is to consider a minimum that you can charge to cover your costs associated with leasing and add an additional 10 or 15 percent to that figure. Some landowners opt to advertise the lease and take sealed bids prior to a deadline several months in advance. Any thorough assessment of the value of the lease should include a baseline break-even price, modified by several value judgments based on “exclusivity” (number of hunters, length of the access period), added amenities (food, lodging, off-season scouting or game management) and whether the client is a preferred return customer. How do you plan to manage customers? This means having a contact system for handling requests, applications and creating a waiting list and client/reference list. Develop and use a good system for recording payments and providing receipts in timely manner. With respect to exclusivity, consider also the number of unwanted trespassers that frequent your property. Your client will hardly have a quality experience if he or she is repeatedly involved with trespasser altercations. Have a non-confrontational plan for dealing with trespassers.
A visit to your accountant is in order. Consider all legal deductions associated with developing this business. A few of these would include advertising, supplemental game feeders, the costs of establishing and managing food plots, and any other expenses directly associated with the business. For example, development of a gated parking area could be a valid expense; simply purchasing a new gate could be farm- or ranch-related expense but would not be applicable to the lease business.
Be certain that as a landowner you understand all of the implications of fee hunting. In some states, a shooting-preserve license is required, although in most states this only pertains to game farms where animals are reared and released. The local conservation officer should be able to provide any information on state regulations, and most states have on-line resources that discuss this topic.
More involved operations may include advanced communications that could include a Web presence or a simple occasional newsletter that educates current and potential customers about wildlife management activities and pertinent legislative updates, or simply provides some images and personal greetings to clients and potential clients.
As a landowner, consider developing a prioritized list of wildlife management goals. This may include an overall property assessment that considers other asset management strategies and how leases dovetail with these other farm- or ranch-management goals. As a landowner one may consider joining local conservation or wildlife groups; for example, Pheasants Forever, National Wild Turkey Association and Ducks Unlimited; that are applicable to the lease you are developing. This will give you access to management specialists and resources, as well as allow you to network within a knowledgeable potential client base.
A larger operation may wish to hold an open house well before the season to acquaint the hunters with any changes in property or game management. These open houses can become “events.” It is becoming increasingly easy to find shooting-sport industry representatives willing to put on high-quality presentations simply to showcase their products. Consider a seminar, and always remember, consider family-oriented events. Women and young people are the growth segments for all hunting- and fishing-related sports. Game-management biologists or law-enforcement officers usually are eager to speak at these presentations. Don’t be afraid to ask them to speak about a specific topic of interest to your guests.
Since hunting is an experience-based undertaking rather than simply a harvest, consider providing a rude shelter, perhaps a small cabin with a table and chairs or bunks where the hunter can store some gear, take shelter from a torrential downpour, rest or perhaps “rough it” the night before a hunt, as well as have a convenient site at which to leave the landowner a note. If so, guidelines pertaining to the use of the shelter should be included in the lease agreement.
To preserve your rights and options as a property owner, do not sign a long-term (multi-year) lease with outfitters, individuals or groups unless you are extremely comfortable with the relationship. Only enter into short-term or seasonal leases until you get to know the clients, then extend the lease if you want to have them as return customers.
Some landowners find it applicable to lease the hunting rights to different species to different sportspersons or groups, when the seasons do not overlap. For example, one could consider: spring and/or fall turkey-hunting lease(s), an early-season muzzle-loader or bow-only fall deer-hunting lease and then a late-season center-fire firearm fall deer-hunting lease. Take an active role in coordinating hunting activities. For example, I ran into a minor problem with a bow hunter who had long-term access to property where I thought that I had exclusive access for a fall turkey hunt. Everything worked out well, but the landowner should have informed us that both parties had permission to hunt. As it was, we both considered the other a trespasser and the encounter made for an awkward moment as we figured out the situation.
When searching for initial contacts, the local conservation officer may be able to recommend individuals who work as unpaid hunter safety instructors for the state. These individuals make particularly conscientious and well-trained, law-abiding clients for a lease. Sportsperson advocacy groups such as Pheasants Forever and National Wild Turkey Federation have state and regional newsletters that offer free or inexpensive advertising to a select audience.
New potential resources for landowners are on-line lease-service agencies. These are a relatively new phenomenon. Usually the service charges a flat fee for the listing and acts as a go-between, a nice way for the landowner to buffer inquiries and perhaps have the client contacts handled through a third party. Most of these services offer legal advice and contracting, and have guides or suggest reputable local guide services. Another new client-management service is the development of the Wildlife Management Association (WMA). This is a local cooperative business structure that fosters a cooperative approach among neighboring landowners working toward common management goals. In some cases, these groups hire their own management specialist who handles game and habitat management issues and projects, leases, contracts and day-to-day client contacts. In these situations, smaller parcel holders reap the benefits of being part of a larger group.
When entering into any of these business relationships, always ask for references from clients, guide services or outfitters and take the time to check those references. This will give you some idea as to the competency of the client hunter(s) or management group. A face-to-face meeting is always a good way to see if you are going to get along with the individual. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; a little immediate discomfort now could prevent a great deal of trouble later on. Also, the hunter’s willingness to answer your inquiries provides you with a good indication of the demeanor and ethical mindset.
If you directly work with your client, do everything in your power to facilitate clear lines of communication. Always include a written list of contact numbers for all involved; also include including general contact procedures and emergency contact numbers for local game-management and law-enforcement officers. A printed map to the nearest hospital is a good addition to this package, particularly for out-of-town clients. Encourage all individuals involved in the lease arrangement to exchange cell phone numbers and carry their phones with them in the field. This is a good practice in case of an emergency or if unauthorized individuals are trespassing. It is never recommended to confront unknown, potentially armed individuals in the field. If trespassing occurs, it is rather simple for the client to take vehicle identifications, confer with the landowner and then contact local game management or law enforcement.
There are other useful forms of communication. Most hunter-education courses stress that hunters leave a note on the dashboard of their vehicle describing who they are, where they are and when they are planning to be leaving the property. A zipper-sealed plastic sandwich bag under a windshield-wiper blade can make a good message drop for leaving this type of note for the landowner or emergency responders and serves the added value of notifying inquisitive wildlife-conservation or law-enforcement officers, who may be monitoring an area for poaching or illegal drug activities, to the presence of armed individuals engaged in a valid activity. The landowner may require a sign-in sheet or drop box where hunters sign in and out. Again, this can be invaluable in case of an emergency, and also provides a record of who was where and when they were present in case there is a problem or misunderstanding.
Communication in any form is probably the simplest and most effective “risk avoidance” tool. These procedures are simple but effective insurance measures should an individual become lost or injured and can minimize “bothering” the landlord with “check-in” visits. Some landowners provide highly visible window cards for parked vehicles or stress that vehicles be parked in a particular location to easily monitor who is on the property and whether they are an approved party. For example, suppose a client leaves the property but then a trespassing group arrives, damages property and departs. If the landowner has a good indication that “their” hunter didn’t cause the problem, there will be no immediate hard feelings and no damage to an otherwise good relationship. Consider other intelligent risk-avoidance measures. These may include hunter orientation programs, comprehensive written leases with indemnification clauses, and liability insurance.
Consider providing access to an answering machine telephone number for messages notifying the hunters of any farming activity, taking information from the hunters regarding booking confirmations, as well as any problems such as trespassers. It also is a good idea to include the phone numbers of local game-management and law-enforcement officers in any recorded greeting. In case of an emergency, this is a great benefit for non-local hunters.
Most states require a hunter safety course. This is now a standardized course of instruction across most of the United States. All graduates should have a certification card and a number. In states with electronic licensing programs, once an individual provides the number, it usually is printed on all successively issued licenses. It is well within the rights of the landowner to ask for evidence of this safety training and is a regular practice with almost all outfitters and states issuing out-of-state, non-resident licenses. Many shooting preserves, guides and outfitters ask for a photocopy of the individual’s driver’s license and hunter safety card prior to processing applications.
Expressly prohibit the use of drugs or alcohol. Alcohol should never be allowed in the field or around loaded firearms under any circumstances. If allowed in the evenings or “after the hunt” in a lodge, bunkhouse or similar designated area, then this should be stipulated in writing along with the consequences of abusing the privilege (deposit forfeiture, prosecution) outlined in the contract.
In many western states where dry fall conditions are prevalent and fire danger is constant, smoking is prohibited or strictly controlled by most ranchers and outfitters. Similarly, in dry areas, open fires and vehicle parking should be strictly controlled. Parking a vehicle with a red-hot catalytic converter in dry range grass can, at the least, mean the end of the vehicle and a run-away grass fire: at worst, loss of additional property or life.
For outfitters and guides, smoking has the added disadvantage of “scent posting” hunters. For big game animals having an acute sense of smell, foreign scents like tobacco, body odor, aftershave lotion, perfume or “eau-de-truck-stop-restaurant” seriously compound the difficulty of stand hunting or stalking animals. Successful hunters control scent as actively as they avoid visually alerting the animals. For this reason, many professional guides and services will not contract with smokers unless the smoker stipulates to using chewable oral tobacco products for the duration of the hunt and while in the outfitter’s vehicle, tents or buildings. This is doubly important in those hunting situations (moose, bears) where a mortally wounded animal has the opportunity to exact revenge on its adversary, should it be able to identify the source of the problem before it is immobilized.
Fully understand that this is a business with contractual obligations and legal liability. If a landowner decides to develop a lease, the most successful strategy is to start small. Investigate the various lease contract examples available from different state natural resource departments or Web sites (listed at this site), and understand your particular state’s liability issues. Landowners should consult with a local agricultural extension agent, especially one who is in a wildlife extension position, as well as their state’s department of natural resources, and compile a file of reference materials that pertain to recreational lease agreements and any game management issue that pertains to the species covered by the contract. Have the lease agreement reviewed by your attorney.
Components of a Good Lease Agreement
Communication and emergency communication are highly important. Provide full contact information for both parties including message and emergency phone numbers and e-mail contacts, if applicable. Also maintain a note “drop box” or “note under the windshield wiper” communications while on the property. Get this information in the lease agreement so there is no excuse for miscommunication.
Provide a concise property description. A topographic or plat map or detailed diagram of the property could be attached as an “exhibit.” This helps to prevent unintentional illegal trespass on neighboring land, as well as graphically describes areas accessible to lease holders, designated parking areas, and shoot-no-shoot zones.
Include a statement that describes the fee and how the fee payment is to be made (deposit by a given date, remainder so many days before the opening of the season) and exactly what is provided in return for the payment. Conditions for refundable or non-refundable fees should be noted in the contract.
Include a “no warranty clause.” This statement clarifies that the lease agreement is made and accepted without a warranty of any kind on the part of the lessor as to the title of the land or its ability to provide game animals, and is expressly subject to any and all existing easements, mortgages, reservations, liens, right-of-way contracts and existing leases for grazing, cropping or oil, gas or mineral exploration or development. Some affirmation of the lessor’s right to undertake regular farming or ranching activities should be included here or in a separate clause.
Include a non-transferable “entitled entry” clause. This section delineates those individuals classified as “allowed guests” who have access with the lease holder. If guests are allowed, the maximum number of guests allowed in the party should be stipulated in the lease. This could range from an unconditional non-restriction to the name and address of a single individual; in either situation, the terms should be in the contract. Access dates and hours of the day should be noted here or in a “use restriction” clause. Note also that the lease applies to the undersigned and is not transferable to another individual or party.
Include an “insurance maintenance” clause. This states whether the tenant will provide insurance coverage for the activities covered under the lease agreement. In most cases this is NO; however, if YES, a specific dollar limit on bodily injury and a specific dollar limit on property damage should be specified in the contract. This may be included with an “indemnity” clause, also know as a “hold-harmless” clause. This statement is a disclaimer that protects the landowner from injury on their property and can be used as proof that injured individuals were aware of the risks involved in the undertaking, and that they took responsibility for their actions and well-being. However, an indemnity clause does not relieve landowners from any liability resulting from their extreme negligence, misbehavior or accidents related to misinformation that they provided.
Include a “use restriction” clause. This is where the landowner can specifically spell out abusive behavior. This behavior could include alcohol use or abuse; drug use; use of 4-wheelers, snowmobiles or other motorized equipment; non-hunting recreational shooting; permanent fixture of tree stands; improper gate closures and livestock release; abuse of ranch roads; parking vehicles with hot exhaust systems over dry grass where range fires could result; discharge of firearms from within a vehicle; and shooting in the general direction of homes, vehicles, buildings or livestock.
Include a “forfeiture of access” or “cancellation” statement. This outlines behavior (alcohol use, unspecified guests, inappropriate actions) that would justify immediate nonrefundable forfeiture of the lease. Usually this clause applies to both parties to some extent and involves a reasonable period of fair warning that the lease agreement is to be terminated (30 days or so written notice by registered, return receipt mail) and may involve a full or partial fee return or forfeiture of a prepayment, security deposit or similar financial compensation.
Include a final “witness statement” that the agreement has been studied, is understood and is being undertaken by the two undersigned parties, in full regard to applicable laws of the state of residence, followed by signature and date blocks, and a signature and date block for an independent witness.
Developed January 2008 and reviewed July 2014.