I can still hear the ringing in my ears from another fun-filled holiday weekend celebrating our nation’s birthday. A nice long weekend with family and friends is never complete until a few of us start laying out our plans for the upcoming hunting season and which deer made the hit list for the fall. This year was no different, but this time I had more on my mind. I gave more thought to just how popular the hunting lease arrangement has become and how much growth is still possible…and I couldn’t help but smile.
The 1930s- The South rises up.
Your perception of hunting leases and hunt clubs is greatly dependent on where you live and hunt. If you chase whitetails or mallards in any of the southern states between Texas and South Carolina, you have likely hunted from a young age as part of a hunt club that leased the land it hunted. In fact, the whole thing started in Texas sometime in the 1930s. Large landowners and ranchers discovered that hunters and trappers would pay a fee to access their land. The arrangement worked so well that forest companies and other corporations began making the same offer across the south and southeast. Private hunt clubs would lease thousands of acres and see their memberships reach into the hundreds. The “hunt club” and access to large tracts of land became a way of life for most southerners. The thought of not paying to lease hunting ground or join a club meant you weren’t hunting.
The Midwest follows suit…slowly.
The South had a significant physical trait that made it very attractive to hunters. Much of the south and southeast consisted of hundreds of thousands of acres of uninterrupted forest land. It is still common for one landowner (company) to control vast areas of land, which makes a hunting lease simple. By contrast, the Midwest was built on the backs of the family farm. Traditionally, family farms are much smaller tracts of land (20 to 200 acres) each with a deep personal attachment between the landowner and the land itself. It was the latter part that likely accounted for the initial slow growth of leasing in the Midwest. Farmers were simply more comfortable allowing only family and close friends to hunt their relatively small farms.
In the late 1990’s things began to change and shape the future of hunting leases in the Midwest and subsequently the rest of the country. One of the changes was smaller farms were being bought by larger farming operations. That’s not to say that it was all corporate driven. Successful family farms became much larger as they bought surrounding farms and grew their operations. Coupled with the pursuit of property by investment firms and urban sprawl, the bond between landowner and land began to fade. It was around this time that landowners were faced with the management issues that came with owning larger tracts of hunting ground. Trespassing was an undeniable problem and even those that hunted with permission were acting less and less responsibly. Littering, over harvesting game, unlimited guests and other problems forced the landowners to find solutions for these increasing headaches.
The Midwest has always been able to boast an impressive number of big bodied and heavy antlered bucks. Even with smaller tracts of timber; deep wooded draws and an endless food supply mean bucks can grow to maturity. Even if you aren’t a trophy hunter, the deer population itself throughout most of the Midwest is unmatched. This fact brought substantial value to the farms and the rights to chase the game that called them home.
Enter the Hunting Lease.
It seemed all the Midwest needed was a catalyst. Something…or someone…to bring these two groups together. The landowners, with rising operation costs, unstable grain prices and trespassing issues and the hunters, desperate to hunt these coveted areas. Taking a page from the south, they began to find each other through local networks and word of mouth. It was the internet and hunting lease brokers that really blew it up in the Midwest. Essentially, hunting lease companies are similar to car dealerships. They do all of the legwork to get inventory, market the properties on their websites then prepare the paperwork for you. It is a tremendous convenience and timesaver, for a small commission. Now, hunters from around the country could get online and search for quality habitat by state and even counties.
Some took it a step further and simply approached landowners on their own with an offer to lease. Again, like buying a car privately, hunters and landowners discovered they could use a formal written agreement and secure a hunting lease liability policy to protect each other and work out a deal while standing on the front porch.
The hunting lease was the problem solver both sides had been looking for and they went all in.
Perception is not always reality.
The immediate criticism of hunting leases came from an obvious source. The hunter that was previously hunting for free, with little or no accountability cried foul! The perception quickly grew that leasing was for the rich and only doctors, lawyers and other professionals could afford to pay to hunt. This was never the case, in fact the argument for the exact opposite is an easy one to make. Hunting leases make it possible for anyone to hunt premium ground in any state they choose for a tiny fraction of what it would cost to own the exact same land. In most cases, the cost of a yearlong, exclusive hunting lease won’t even pay the annual taxes on that property.
Leasing provides blue collar Americans, with little expectation of land ownership, the opportunity to hunt and manage a piece of prime hunting real estate as if they did.
Did you know… many guides and outfitters lease the ground they provide for their clients? Given the choice between hunting with a guide or outfitter for 5 days (on leased ground) or leasing their own farm and hunting it for a full year, it seems hunters have seen the light.
In 2011, 1.27 million hunters spent over $1 billion to lease more than 420 million acres of private property (according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study). In fact, hunters spent over $34 billion on their sport according to the same USFWS study. So, the paradigm shift that needed to occur wasn’t convincing hunters to spend money (that has never been an issue!). It was getting them to rethink the order of their hunting priorities. Today, hunters around the U.S. agree, access to safe, enjoyable hunting ground is at the top of their hunting budget.
United WE stand.
Using the data above and studying trends across the country, it’s fair to estimate that more than half of all hunters in the United States either pay to lease or pay for access to hunting land. Like anything that becomes popular, you can bet hunting leases and the hunting lease arrangement will get plenty of attention, some good and some not so good. We have already seen cases where individual states questioned the legality of a hunting lease and the professional licenses needed by brokers. In each instance, with the support of its members, the American Hunting Lease Association was able to assist in educating lawmakers and make a successful argument.
Today, the hunting lease and all of its benefits are as popular and widespread as ever. When a lease is executed properly, with a written agreement and a hunting lease liability policy, everyone wins. That doesn’t mean there is a Booner on every lease or a limit of ducks on every pond, but everyone should enjoy the safety and beauty of the great outdoors and the AHLA is proud to do whatever it takes to make that happen.