Is private-land access on the way out for Iowa deer hunters? Take a look inside the pivotal issue of hunter access in the Hawkeye State. (December 2008)
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is working to develop programs to maintain the state's rich history of private land access for deer hunters.
Photo by Curt Wells.
You pay to go to the movies. You pay to play a round of golf. You pay to enjoy dozens of other recreational activities. Why shouldn't you pay for the privilege of hunting on a farmer's property?
The knee-jerk reaction you're probably feeling underscores the depth of the old tradition that, in Iowa, you hunt for free. For generations, the unspoken, unwritten custom of the country has been that, merely by asking permission, hunters would be granted access to private property.
But things are changing. Farmers and landowners have realized that pheasants, deer and other wild game on their property have value. Some hunters are willing to pay to gain access to land that offers good hunting. Some landowners now view wildlife as another revenue-generating "crop."
(Editor's Note: Though landowners have no legally recognized property interest in the wildlife on their land -- wildlife belongs to the public and is managed on its behalf by the state government through the Iowa Department of Natural Resources -- they exert de facto control of that wildlife by managing access to their property and any habitat in it that harbors game animals.)
Fortunately, the majority of landowners in Iowa hold strong to the tradition of open access to private property, as long as permission is asked and granted. Will that tradition continue, or will money eventually decide who hunts where in Iowa?
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has watched the pay-to-hunt movement develop in Iowa and is monitoring its expansion, studying its effects and working to develop programs to maintain hunter access to private property.
"Right now, our biggest concern is with deer, because we see more and more leasing and restricting of hunting access for deer," said Todd Bogenschutz, upland game biologist with the IDNR. "We're trying to get a handle on what's going on with all forms of hunting access in Iowa so we can stay ahead of the situation."
IDNR surveys show that less than 5 percent of landowners now lease hunting rights. But percentages can be deceiving. Many of those owners have land in areas of the state that offer the best wildlife habitat and, therefore, the best hunting.
"I get phone calls all the time from guys complaining that they've lost access to ground they hunted for years and years, because somebody bought or leased the land for hunting," said Randy Taylor, president of the Iowa Bowhunters' Association. "I hear about it a lot down in southeast Iowa. There are places down there where thousands of acres have been leased or purchased for hunting rights. They may not all be under one management: Maybe one guy or group has rights to 100 or 200 acres next to 100 acres leased or owned by another group of hunters. But the bottom line is that there are a few areas in Iowa where it's getting tough to get permission to hunt deer because the hunting rights have been bought or leased."
Dan Cunning, a realtor in Mt. Ayr in south-central Iowa, has seen interest in leasing or purchasing land solely for hunting rights increase markedly. "There's a strong market for land that's not good farmland or pastureland but has good wildlife habitat," he reported. "I have mixed emotions about the whole issue. I own land of my own, have hunted my entire life and prefer to see things stay the way they are -- where hunters ask and get permission to hunt for free. But it's hard for farmers to walk away from the extra income if guys are willing to pay to hunt."
Willie Suchy, IDNR wildlife research supervisor, noted that farmers and landowners might want to look at more than the potential for immediate profits. "Iowa's statutes are such that if a farmer or landowner grants permission to hunt for free, they're not liable (for damages) if the hunter is injured on the property," he said. "As soon as they take any monetary payment, the farmer or landowner can be held liable for injuries. That is a big, big issue."
Freedom from liability is the main incentive to farmers in programs that the IDNR is exploring in hopes of maintaining Iowa's tradition of free hunting access to private property. The goal is to develop programs that benefit farmers and landowners, so that they allow public hunting access rather than lease or sell those rights to individuals.
To that end, the IDNR is conducting surveys of landowners and working with other states' wildlife departments to identify programs that will work in Iowa. The surveys address landowners' concerns --everything from worries about losing control over the persons entering their properties if they sign on to a state-managed access program to queries about the sorts of compensation for state-managed programs that would most interest landowners. One compensation option under consideration is to offer tax credits rather than outright payments.
"Cash payments (to procure hunting access), whether they're from the state or from a private individual, increase a landowner's gross income and increase their taxes," said Bogenschutz. "Tax credits for allowing public access would reduce their taxable income and ultimately reduce their taxes. Signing up for a state-sponsored program would also provide liability protection."
Other states have a variety of programs that facilitate hunter access to private lands. South Dakota and Nebraska compensate landowners permitting public access to their land. Montana's intricate "block management program" caters to individual preferences among landowners by enabling customization of the terms of hunter access.
"Our program . . . includes incentives that include compensation of up to $12,000 per landowner per license year," said Alan Charles, who works with farmers and ranchers on behalf of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. "Participants receive compensation along with liability protection, and we tailor access to each farm or ranch according to the landowner's preferences. Some of the guys want to meet and talk to every hunter that's on their property, and others don't care who's on their land other than to have them sign their name and address and drop it into a drop box at the main gate. Our program allows each landowner to offer public access in a way that makes him comfortable."
"It takes a lot of work to make such a complicated program work, but last year we paid out over $4 million to more than 1,250 landowners and
had over 8.5 million acres of private land available to the public."
Fortunately, hunters in Iowa still have relatively good access to private property. In most cases, a polite hunter can still gain permission to hunt small game on the majority of farms in Iowa. Deer hunters, because of Iowa's status as one of the top trophy whitetail producers in the nation, have noticed more private lands leased or purchased for hunting. The trend is especially noticeable in southeast and south-central Iowa, where "No Hunting-Leased Hunting" signs are becoming common -- not so common as to prevent a determined person from finding places to hunt, but common enough to point up that hunting access is no longer a given.
Those concerned about losing hunting privileges to private lands can be proactive. The IDNR encourages hunters to contact their legislators in support of state-managed programs to compensate landowners who allow hunters access to their property. The Iowa Bowhunters' Association and Pheasants Forever are already working with the IDNR and the Iowa Legislature to preserve hunter access to private property.
Never assume that a thank-you will be enough to ensure permission to hunt year after year on private property. Because cash transactions immediately open landowners to liability issues, consider other options for showing appreciation to landowners who allow you to hunt. Remembering farmers at Christmas with a modest gift can strengthen friendships and ensure hunting opportunities for years to come.
Suchy has found a gift of deer sausage or packaged venison to be a good means of expressing gratitude to the landowners who allowed him to hunt on their property. Taylor, president of the Iowa Bowhunters, says some of the group's members make a point of helping farmers bale hay, build fences or perform other labor in exchange for hunting privileges.
"You can't assume that farmers are going to let you hunt for free," said Taylor. "It's in your best interest to find a way to make sure the farmer knows how much you appreciate the opportunity to hunt on his land. If you don't, someone else will."