Times were a little different 30 years ago. Whitetails numbers were exploding, dedicated hunters could still find a few coveys of quail, and permission to hunt both was as simple as knocking on a farmhouse door. Not anymore. The quail are mostly gone, and permission to hunt those deer requires more than a polite request. It takes a wad of cash.
Once the domain of Texas, paying landowners for exclusive hunting rights is now common throughout the country. Virtually every tract of corporate forest in the Southeast is under some sort of lease. A growing number of duck marshes, deer woods, and pheasant fields are open only to those willing to fork over hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Leasing is big business.
But is it playing a role in the slow, steady decline in hunting participation, as some in the hunting community suggest? Not surprisingly, the two share opposite trajectories. That is, as hunter numbers slid throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the practice of leasing hunting land grew. Coincidence?
The decline in hunter numbers is far more complex than a single factor, agrees Dr. Craig Miller, leader of the Human Dimensions Research Program at the Illinois Natural History Survey. However, a common theme pops up when researchers examine hunter attrition: access. More specifically, the lack of access to private land. In a growing number of cases, that lost access is the result of the landowner leasing to other hunters.
“Here in Illinois, I would say that, overall, leasing has had a negative impact on hunter participation,” says Miller. “When someone loses a place they’ve been hunting, because of leasing or any other reason, they have difficulty finding a new place. We know that through surveys. If they do find new land, they often have to drive farther, spend more money, and generally put more effort into it. Not all of them quit hunting, but those additional barriers certainly push some people out.”
So far, no one in the Human Dimensions community has attempted to quantify the direct impact of leasing on hunter participation, but Miller acknowledges that in some cases, it may actually create more opportunities.
“The prospect of earning what amounts to free money is often enough for a landowner to put up with any real or perceived negatives associated with leasing,” he adds. “Land that may not have been open to any hunting in the past is now available.”
That may be what has taken place in the duck-rich Mississippi Delta. The fertile bottomlands have always been a top duck hunting destination. Leasing has brought even more hunters to the area.
“Once farmers realized they could make money by flooding their rice fields, creating moist-soil habitat, and putting pit blinds on their land, they all started flooding rice fields and building moist-soil impoundments with pit blinds on them,” says Memphis resident Bill Cooksey. He’s been hunting the Delta and other duck-rich regions for over 40 years, often from a leased blind, and has seen the changes first-hand. “The good news is that there is a lot more high-quality waterfowl habitat available to ducks and geese. We have more hunters, but we have more ducks and more places to hunt them.”
Paying to hunt isn’t a new phenomenon. The blind Cooksey currently hunts has been under some sort of lease for more than 50 years. Texas landowners have been charging to hunt even longer. However, the notion of paying for hunting rights was almost unheard of in most states as recently as 20 years ago. Just four percent of rural Illinois landowners leased their land in 2002. Miller can’t say for sure, but he is certain that percentage is considerably higher now, particularly in the counties known for big whitetails and in farm country close to population centers.
“Pretty much every rice field in the best duck country in west Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri is either leased or owned by a group of people who bought it primarily for duck hunting,” adds Cooksey. “There are far more hunting opportunities in those regions because landowners created so much additional habitat, but you are probably going to have to pay.”
Lots of people don’t seem to mind.
According the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 900,000 hunters spent $1.35 billion dollars to lease 130 million acres in 2016. Missouri hunters each paid an average of $1,161 in 2018 for an annual deer-only lease, according to a University of Missouri survey. That’s up slightly from 2015. Georgia hunters on average pay $830 each to lease private land. Duck blinds that consistently produce limits can rent for many times that.
Mississippi State University professor Dr. Ian Munn expects the cost of leases to increase in the foreseeable future, at least in his area. He’s been studying the economics of hunting, including leasing, for years.
“My gut feeling is that there isn’t enough land available for lease yet under competitive market conditions to drive lease prices down,” he says.
That may change as more landowners realize the economic benefits of leasing. When more property becomes available, prices may come down, figures Munn, especially if hunter numbers remain stagnant or decline.
“Close to 100 percent of corporate landowners, like timber companies, lease their lands, but there are still a lot of private landowners out there who don’t lease,” he says. “The last survey we conducted showed only about 16 percent of non-industrial forest landowners in Mississippi leased their hunting rights.”
Not surprisingly, money is the primary motivation for leasing, especially when the revenue is substantial. For some, however, it isn’t entirely about money. Absentee landowners in particular like having a friendly set of eyes on their land to help reduce trespassing, littering, and vandalism.
“Smaller landowners seem to want to lease to a group of people they know and trust,” says Munn. “They make some money that they would not have gotten otherwise, and they are comfortable with the people they allow to hunt.”
He can’t say if leasing has been detrimental to overall hunter participation, but Cooksey acknowledges it likely has nudged some people out of the sport, especially part-time or casual hunters.
“It used to be that a guy could drive out of the city and knock on a door and get permission to hunt for the afternoon,” he says. “That’s almost impossible now. I don’t blame that entirely on leasing, but a landowner who leases to a deer club is going to be less likely to give permission to the guy who only hunts a couple of times a year, but who buys a license. The guys who have a deer lease don’t want a bunch of duck hunters shooting or a small-game hunter walking around when they are hunting. A farm that may have been available to different groups of hunters throughout the seasons are now only being hunted for deer.”
That controlled access is one of the primary motivations for leasing, says Buck Robinson, who founded Outdoor Access (OA) three years ago. Sometimes called the Airbnb of hunting, OA matches landowners and hunters for day and short-term leases. Hunters pay a membership fee and then pay daily rental rates on properties they choose. Those rates are set by the landowner, who keeps the lease revenue. Business is booming. The company started with 13 properties in Virginia in 2016. They now have over 600 tracts, the bulk in five states. Membership has grown rapidly, as well.
“Our members are generally urban and suburban, some are military, and they are often new to the area so they don’t have any connections to rural landowners,” says Robinson. “They love to hunt, but they don’t have a place to go. They don’t have a social network established, either. Many of them tried public land and didn’t like the experience, so they decided that paying for exclusive access to private property was the next step.”
Robinson is convinced his lease model, and leasing in general, has helped retain hunters who were on the verge of hanging up their orange hat for good. Research has shown that hunters are more likely to keep hunting when they have quality experiences. That includes abundant game, less competition for that game, and less effort overall. A lease can provide all of those.
“Thirty percent of our members either never hunted or they hadn’t hunted in at least three years prior to joining,” he says. “One guy hadn’t hunted in fifteen years. He joined, went hunting, and got a buck. I hear stories like that frequently. I think we are having a strong impact on recruitment and retention.”
What’s more, many of the landowners who joined Outdoor Access did not allow hunting on their land in the past, affirming Miller’s belief that a financial incentive can unlock land previously off-limits.
Whether leasing is good, bad, or indifferent to the future of hunting is, for the most part, irrelevant. It isn’t going away. Like it or not, there’s a good chance you’ll have to let your checkbook do the asking if you want to hunt private land in the future.