Revised March 2019
For the landowner, farmer or rancher, hunting leases are a way to generate income from wildlife sustained through their crop and habitat resources. Few hunting, conservation or land-use issues are as controversial as the ongoing trend toward “lease hunting.” This is hardly a new concept. Common in Europe, hunting leases also have been a common practice in some American states for almost a century.
In the West, daily or seasonal use fees are sometimes 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.
Wildlife and their habitat resources are increasingly valuable as sportspersons become more willing to pay for access to a 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. Additionally, many landowners realize that some sort of fee-based hunting allows them to utilize the proceeds from a wildlife resource which they subsidize, that can be used to supplement farm or ranch income or to provide cash for habitat improvement or soil and water conservation projects.
When searching for initial contacts, local conservation officers 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. 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.
One potential resource for landowners is the on-line lease-service agency. This type of 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 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 client-management service is the Wildlife Management Association (WMA). This is a cooperative business structure that fosters common management among neighboring landowners. In some cases, these groups hire a management specialist who handles game and habitat management issues that include project oversight, lease agreements, and client contracts. In this model, smaller parcel holders reap the benefits of being part of a larger group.
When considering offering a lease, pricing usually comes down to how that state’s licensing system operates and the competition in that area for prime habitat (numbers or quality of the species to be hunted). In some 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 said to be getting a premium, they may be surprised when they are still sitting on their unsold asset at the start of the season.
To reduce their competition for trophy-hunting clients, some big outfitters are notorious for coming into an area and increasing lease and transferable-license prices to eliminate competition. These outfitters 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, harvest them, then move on to another area, perhaps in another state. The landowners are then left to fend for themselves until market pricing readjusts or the number of trophy animals once again interests the big outfitter.
The most sustainable plan is when landowners take an active role in resource management and cooperatively hire their own game manager or work with motivated highly-respected local guides. This model generates its own marketing networks, loyal repeat clients, part-time employment opportunities, revenue for cafes, hotels, bed and breakfasts, game-processing cold-storage facilities; and promotes active habitat management and poacher control.
With respect to big game animals, any management focus should be on maintaining the game population at or below environmentally sustainable levels to limit crop damage and animal mortality due to overcrowding. Lease holders or managers need to harvest both “trophy” animals and “management” animals. Trophy animals are the outstanding individuals; management animals are the lesser males and females that need to be culled to prevent the detrimental effects of overpopulation.
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 the going rate for leases is within a general area through word-of-mouth inquiries. Another strategy is to consider a minimum that you can charge to cover your costs associated with leasing and add an additional reasonable margin 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? Develop and use a good system for recording payments and providing receipts in timely manner.
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, 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 multiple-client lease arrangements 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. A concise property description with topographic and plat maps that detail the property should be part of any lease agreement. 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.
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.
Formal lease agreements may take many forms: seasonal, year-round, 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.
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 or provided here on AgMRC, 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.
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).
- Legal Considerations for Hunting Leases, Ag Decision Maker, Iowa State University Extension & Outreach, 2014
- Developing a Forest Land Hunting Lease - This Web site provides a tutorial and guide on preparing a hunting lease for an individual hunter or hunting club to use, 2019
- Fee Hunting, Illinois Agritourism, University of Illinois Extension - This new site provides information specific to fee hunting.
- Fee Hunting May Boost Farm Income, Wildlife Habitat, Amber Waves, Economic Research Service (ERS), USDA, 2008 - Some U.S. landowners market hunting opportunities by managing wildlife on their property and charging hunters a fee to access their land. These landowners may also provide a public service for those who value wildlife for reasons other than hunting.
- How to Manage Liability in Recreational Lease Enterprises, Grant Huggins, Noble Foundation.
- Hunting Lease Agreement, Reynwood Forest - Provides a sample hunting lease.
- Hunting Leases in Kansas, Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Kansas State University.
- National Woodland Owners Association - This national organization of private woodland owners provides group rates for woodland and for hunting lease liability insurance.