This commentary serves as an accompaniment to the full Hunter Access Survey published by the American Hunting Lease Association.

The Hunter Access Survey was created and distributed to a wide array of hunters from across the country. The goal was to provide hunting industry leaders, hunters, landowners and policy makers with firsthand feedback and opinions/habits from actual hunters in the field. The survey specifically sought answers to questions surrounding how hunters access their hunting ground and their overall satisfaction with that access. The survey was published unedited to provide a clear and objective picture.

Serving as the trade association for the hunting lease industry, the American Hunting Lease Association consults with hunters and landowners every day that lease their hunting access or are considering a hunting lease arrangement. Through education, guidance and providing risk management for all parties, the AHLA has developed unique expertise and cultivated relationships from nearly every corner of the hunting industry.

Relying on its experience securing access to quality habitat for hunters and providing safe, ethical arrangements for landowners, the AHLA offers its interpretation of the results of the Hunter Access survey in this subjective commentary.

What Hunters Said

Our survey was meant to do one thing and that was to give a voice to the hunters in this country and allow them to sing the praises of their hunting methods and access or to voice concerns and complaints about how they access their hunting ground. Hunter access has been mentioned repeatedly by hunting industry leaders and various hunting organizations as one of the reasons for the recent decline in hunters. Over 2200 hunters participated in our survey and shared their hunting experiences on public land, leasing access to quality habitat and hunting private land for free.

A quick glimpse at how our participants describe themselves.

It isn’t surprising to see that 89% of the hunters surveyed consider themselves to be serious hunters and are passionate about seeing the sport move forward for future generations. When asked if they had mentored a new hunter in the last 3 years, 77% of our hunters answered that they had mentored a new hunter.  Nearly 95% of returned surveys were from hunters with at least 10 years of experience and an impressive 84% had more than 20 years under their belt. Clearly, the survey carries weight given the experience its participants claim.  Lastly and somewhat surprising, most of the hunters (76%) said they hunt simply to enjoy the outdoors and consider it a bonus if they are successful.

When asked directly if they were satisfied with where they hunt and how they gained access, 85% answered that they were happy and would continue to hunt the same way. Does that mean that every hunter has a deer under every tree and flocks of turkeys and mallards to shoot?  Of course not. Does it say that pressure is never a concern and that every hunt is successful? It does not, but it does say that most hunters are finding access to good hunting ground and enjoying their time afield.

A recent article published by one of the largest hunting industry companies quoted an unhappy hunter as saying he was considering hanging up his hunting boots and gear for good because he could no longer find a nice, safe place to hunt with high deer density, that was also within an hour drive of his home and free. Is this the “vanishing hunter” that programs are being created for and organizations are holding emergency committee meetings to address? Is this really the problem we are all trying to solve?

To be fair, any significant efforts or resources spent addressing and solving this hunter’s lack of access to quality ground would be a complete waste of time, money and energy. Those that are only willing to hunt if it’s easy and free will certainly find another reason to quit in short order. Whether they don’t see enough game or haven’t been successful. Our efforts to turn around the decline in hunter numbers must be spent on those willing to help themselves and make some sacrifices to locate and secure quality hunting grounds.

A hunting ecosystem where the participants feel entitled to the access of their choice and on their terms is a fragile one and has little to no sustainability. The old saying “land is the only thing they aren’t making more of” has never been more fitting. Quality habitat is lost every day to various urban expansions and developments, which simply means there is less ground to hunt and hunters must be willing to make some sacrifices in order to hunt quality habitat.

“A hunting ecosystem where the participants feel entitled to the access of their choice and on their terms is a fragile one and has little to no sustainability.”

Hunting Public Land

There are 697 million acres of public hunting ground in this country. If we exclude the western states and Alaska there are still well over 100 million acres available for sportsmen and women to hunt at no charge and with little restrictions. It’s easy to see why hunting public ground is so popular and why hunters that take advantage of this resource report to be satisfied at a high rate.

Hunting public ground is the perfect entry to our sport for new hunters. The ability to explore new areas and experience the feel of being deep in the timber for no cost is invaluable. The ability to freely access areas where game is abundant and the opportunity to scout and observe sign and learn the ways of the woods cannot be overstated. Most states have large swaths of land under state ownership that is open year-round and can be tremendous training ground for new hunters. It’s all there and all paid for, so what can be done to utilize this resource more effectively and encourage new hunters to get in the game?

For starters, the states themselves need to do a better job of educating potential users. The thought that anyone can just pull of an old dirt road somewhere and start hiking into the woods doesn’t seem feasible to people who have never done it. New hunters need to be shown where public land starts and informed about what they can and can’t do on it. They need to be shown areas where they can park to access state-owned land and assured that the resource is available to them 365 days a year. Hunters getting started in the sport are typically surprised to learn just how easy it is. Once they learn the process, the confidence they gain from knowing they are hunting legally and have access to such a plentiful resource will hopefully keep them coming back.

It’s not just new hunters that take advantage of public ground access. Many seasoned hunters that may also have leases or private land to hunt, spend time on public land if it’s close to home. Most of the hunters surveyed reported that they drive less than 50 miles to hunt public land. So, hunters on public ground typically have driven less than an hour to hunt. This insight is more about hunter’s habits than the quality of the hunting opportunity. One tactic of successful public ground hunters is to find public ground in low populated areas (regardless of travel time) and then plan to inspect it in person.

Hunting public land comes with well-known challenges, but none that can’t be overcome. Hunters that report too much pressure on public land or lack of game may be falling into a routine of parking in well-marked areas and thus hunting where everyone else is hunting. According to our survey, less than 1% of hunters have stopped hunting due to pressure on public land. For every article written that says public land is too hard to hunt, you can find one that says it is fruitful and rewarding if done right.

Many hunters unfamiliar with public land have no idea the abundant resources that are available and waiting for them. Most states provide maps of all public hunting areas and publish rules for hunters. A map and a good pair of hiking boots are all that is necessary to start searching for a good place to spend your time.

Leased Hunting Access and Its Effect on The Future of Hunting

Let’s start with this. Of the over 1000 hunters that lease their hunting access and responded to our survey, 98% of them are at least mostly satisfied and will lease again! That is an overwhelming reality and should at the very least cause every hunter in this country to take note. 98 out of every 100 hunters that choose to compensate a landowner for exclusive access to quality habitat and have some level of control over harvests, hunting decisions and safety are happy with their decision and will continue to do so.

98% will continue to lease hunting access.

While our survey was answered by more hunters that are engaged in a hunting lease arrangement than are not, the mere fact that they lease has no bearing on whether they are satisfied with the arrangement. Their satisfaction is a direct result of their experiences while leasing access to the habitat and the relationships they have built with their landowners.

This metric is confirmed by a smaller, but similar survey conducted by the University of Georgia and the Georgia Outdoor News. In 2014 they polled hunters that leased hunting ground and found that 98% of them would lease again. Coincidence? Not a chance. . . it is an undeniable affirmation of the hunting lease concept.

The AHLA undertook this survey to find out if access to quality wildlife habitat was in fact an issue driving hunters away from the sport or possibly keeping new hunters from picking up a weapon and heading into the woods. Clearly from the feedback we received from hunters that lease access, there is no cause for concern. Subsequently, our experience outside of the survey demonstrates the same level of satisfaction from landowners that lease access to their farms and properties.

So, why don’t more hunters lease?

Consider that in 2016 hunters in the U.S. spent over $20 billion (87% of all expenditures) on items unrelated to access (2016 USFWS National Survey). Read that again if you need to, let it sink in. $20 billion on gear, travel, weapons, food, ammo and even magazines and memberships and yet some still balk at the idea of paying to access land. The ability or willingness to pay for hunting access isn’t for everyone. However, based on the above numbers from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, hunters are already “paying to hunt”, they are just paying big companies instead of landowners.

For hunters that are sincerely interested and motivated to improve their hunting experience, a shift in priorities will be necessary. That change in the way they approach hunting season will mandate that hunters recognize the pecking order of what gear/expenses really matter and place access to quality habitat at or near the top of that list. Once hunters connect these dots and are willing to place a landowner ahead of all other hunting-related companies that compete for their money, their hunting experiences will improve, their hunting trips will be safer, more productive and more enjoyable. Plainly stated, satisfied hunters pay for access before they pay for bows, guns, ammunition, technical clothing, tree stands, scents and calls etc…

The financial challenges that come with land ownership are very real. Landowners, by virtue of their perceived assets are often mislabeled as wealthy. Landowners, in general are far from wealthy and many live on a fixed or limited income. Family farms are being inundated with growing debt related to costs from farming, insurance, maintenance, mortgages and more. A simple offer to compensate a landowner or farmer for hunting access, can pay property taxes for an entire year.   A hunting lease arrangement can make very real and immediate difference in a landowner’s life.

A willingness to compensate landowners, relieving at least some of their financial burden in exchange for exclusive access will undoubtedly (98%!) result in a better experience.

One final benefit of leasing that may well be the most important is its positive effect on habitat preservation. If access is truly a concern, then it seems obvious that preserving the habitat we enjoy now should be at the top of everyone’s priority list. Landowners living on a fixed budget or in need of additional income frequently sell their land to generate revenue. Once that property changes hands, there is a high likelihood that it will be developed, and the habitat permanently removed. Landowners that have discovered the benefits of generating additional revenue through leasing access to their land are less likely to sell and that habitat will continue to flourish.

As hunters and industry representatives, we cannot standby and allow urban sprawl and still think the sport of hunting can flourish. Compensating those that own the resource and addressing their concerns and needs will directly result in reduced habitat loss.

Do we need more hunters?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service published its National Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife Associated Recreation report in 2017 which showed a decrease of over 2 million hunters from 2011 to 2016. Shortly after that report was published, the race was on to recruit new hunters, retain current hunters and to reactivate past hunters. An emphasis was placed on one task; increase the number of hunters afield by any means necessary.

Yes, we need more hunters. However, we need the right hunters. Hunters that will carry the torch forward and respect the traditions of stewardship and fair pursuit. As a like-minded community we should always place a high priority on introducing new hunters to the sport, but we can’t ignore cultural changes that have a much greater impact than we are equipped to address.

When asked directly why they believed the number of hunters in America was declining, over half (56%) of the participants sighted a cultural shift away from hunting. This is a challenge that we can have very little effect on, but at the same time offers an opportunity to focus efforts on improving the hunting experience and the overall hunting culture.  By providing a more enjoyable time afield, hunters new and old are more likely to stay engaged and will grow hunter numbers organically by sharing their experiences.  This can be accomplished by making more quality access available, removing obstacles to entry, providing more awareness on public land access and by addressing the needs of landowners.

Food for Thought

Is it possible that our natural resources and game animals, the access (both private and public) and the opportunities to harvest game can reasonably sustain an ideal number of hunters? 

Think of it like we do the deer herd in every state. (or ducks, turkeys or even fish) Every state sets bag limits, season dates and hunting regulations based on scientific research that best serves the overall health of the herd. This is done for the long-term health of the resource, which ultimately serves all hunters and outdoor consumers.

If the same philosophy was applied to the number of hunters, would we still think we needed more?  Two of the best big deer states in the U.S. are Kansas and Iowa. Each of these states “manage” their resource by limiting hunter opportunities with a draw system. Yet, no one is calling for these states to open their tag sales to anyone to encourage new hunters.

Is it possible, hunter numbers are settling into an ideal number based on all factors?

Lack of access to quality habitat was selected by 33% of the responding hunters, which is a significant number of hunters. More research needs to be done to determine the expectations, past access history and game populations and most importantly the perceptions of these hunters. Regardless, this group of hunters represents a large section of our community and there are many steps we can take to improve access.

Mentoring isn’t easy

So much has been written about mentoring new hunters, but truth be told mentoring is (or should be) much more than simply taking someone hunting once or twice. To be a true mentor, you should have a plan or schedule and be available for questions even during the off-season.

A quick Google search for “hunting mentor programs” revealed several sites. Sadly, few were more than an online slide show illustrating how and where to hunt. Programs focused on creating good, engaging mentors would be a productive step toward improving the experience for new hunters. New hunters that learn from the beginning to be safe, ethical and respectful will be hunters that pass the hunting torch to the next generation.

Imagine the impact serving as a mentor to a young hunter or group of hunters could have on seniors that once hunted passionately but may now be looking to simply enjoy their time outdoors and excited to pass their experience to another generation.

Pittman Robertson Act

The Pittman Robertson Act was not mentioned in the survey, but in the context of growing our sport it is worth of mentioning.

In 1937 Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the PR Act that provided an 11% excise tax on all firearms and ammunition. (it has since been amended to add archery equipment to the list of taxable items) These considerable funds were then earmarked for distribution to the states to fund wildlife restoration projects, archery education, maintenance of state parks, shooting ranges etc. States receive this funding based on the states area and the number of licensed hunters. So, there is a direct correlation between the number of licensed hunters in a state and available funding from the federal government.

In 1937 this was a tremendous financial boon to the states and to the hunting community. Even today, states count on the federal funding to pay for many of the original intended projects. However, with decreased habitat comes a decline in hunters and a decline in hunting licenses. If left alone, many of our favorite parks and education programs could be underfunded.

Today, there is an undeniable cultural shift toward enjoying the outdoors without hunting. The time to develop new funding options to carry some of the weight our natural resources demand has arrived. The outdoor recreational industry is now a $20 billion industry selling sleeping bags, hiking boots, backpacks, tents and more.

A strong case could be made to use the sale of outdoor industry goods to help alleviate funding issues faced by state natural resource agencies. The goods could be added to the Pittman Robertson act via amendment with minimal need for additional legislation. The consumers and outdoor enthusiasts that purchase and use these goods are enjoying the very resource hunters (through the Pittman Robertson Act) have funded since 1937.

Summary

Lack of access to quality habitat is often cited as one of the reasons hunters stop hunting. The truth is that some hunters do lose access and some hunters don’t know how or where to access and still others can’t afford to lease access to quality hunting ground. What the AHLA Hunter Access survey proved was that the overall picture of how hunters access their hunting properties and their satisfaction with that access is extremely healthy.

  • 98% of hunters leasing access are satisfied and will lease again.
  • 85% of hunters on private ground with free access are satisfied.
  • 75% of hunters on public ground are satisfied.
  • < 1% of hunters stopped hunting due to pressure on public ground
  • 80% of hunters hunt the same or more now than they did 5 years ago.

For more information on how to gain exclusive access to private hunting ground, please visit www.ahuntinglease.org