In Illinois, finding places to hunt is getting increasingly difficult. The state is 97% privately owned, and the few public hunting areas are so crowded that it’s deterring to newcomers. It’s a worrying trend in a state trying to combat declining numbers.

“You used to be able just to knock on somebody’s door and they would say ‘sure,’” said Tammy Miller, Illinois Department of Natural Resource’s access program manager. “Landowners are more private and don’t want to do that anymore.”

Hunters all over the country are struggling with private land access. While the issue is challenging to measure on a national scale, Southwick Associates, a research firm that studies sporting data, found in a 2012 study that 23% of hunters had lost some private land access in a single year. Similar losses affected 20% of anglers.

Access issues vary by region and state, so there’s no one single solution to this complex problem. Coordinated efforts are required to overcome the barriers, and those efforts need the hunting community’s attention and support.

“We’re going to have to work harder,” said Randy Newberg, host of “Fresh Tracks.” While Newberg’s media platforms depend on and support public lands, Newberg advocates the idea that private land access is a crucial factor for hunting opportunity. “We’re also going to have to look at private land through a different lens and we’re probably going to have to commit more resources towards it.”

Finding Access Funds
Why should public land hunters, folks with property, or those with the means to lease land, care about private land access? The future of North American hunting depends on it.

Access hurdles are the top reason for people deciding not to hunt, according to a study by Responsive Management, an outdoor recreation research firm. If the hunting community wants public support—and funding for wildlife management—it’s important that a critical mass of people continue to participate, said Joel Webster, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership western lands director.

“If fewer lands are available, there are just going to be fewer people doing this,” Webster said. “And that is not a good trend for what we all like to do.”

Illinois addressed the link between access and hunter numbers when they set up the Illinois Recreational Access Program in 2011. Before they sought access for all public hunters, they first asked landowners to provide opportunities for youth and first-time turkey hunters only, plus bird watchers and canoeists. Helping out new hunters was an easy sell to landowners. The state now tracks IRAP users and feeds the data to the state’s recruitment and retention program. They also help new adult hunters coming out of Illinois’ Learn to Hunt program find places to go.

The drivers behind declining private land access include changing land ownership patterns, habitat destruction, locals getting priced out of leases, and timber companies locking their gates. Publicly-funded access programs now face stiff private sector competition from people willing and able to pay for hunting leases. “It’s just a matter of fact that access for wildlife on private land is becoming or has become monetized,” Webster said.

All of this has chipped away opportunities to the point where hunters, state agencies and NGOs need new, innovative access tactics. “The easy solutions for hunting access on private lands—like just writing a check—those kinds of programs have reached the apex of what the agency budgets will allow,” Newberg said.

Even lands that would seem publicly accessible at first glance, such as state wildlife management areas, sometimes are not actually open to hunting. WMAs in some states include state trust lands, which legally must be used to generate money for public institutions like schools. If a state’s policies do not make state trust lands open for hunting by default, hunters can get shut out if wildlife agencies can’t afford to lease trust lands from the state land board.

How agencies choose to stretch their access dollars depends on their unique hunting cultures and their geography. In 2017, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources worked with the Conservation Fund to secure 32,000 acres of new wildlife management areas for elk restoration. That included previously leased wildlife management areas that are now permanently protected for the public.

In the West, public land hunters tend to get locked out of private lands and blocked from entering adjacent public lands when ranches change hands. According to analysis by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Project and OnX maps, 9.52 million acres of Western public lands are landlocked by private land. Wyoming contains about one third of that total. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Access Yes program is now prioritizing parcels that also help open up landlocked public lands.

States can also maximize access budgets by bringing landowners to the table with incentives other than cash. Illinois offers habitat planning and improvements for IRAP landowners—often in the form of invasive honeysuckle removal.

Since the 1980s, the federal Conservation Reserve Program has proven that tying habitat conservation to hunter access works with private lands. But the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills cut the number of acres that can be retired from agricultural production for CRP. Land area in the program has declined by more than 25% since a 2007 peak, much to the detriment of bird hunters and habitat across the Great Plains.

A 2008 addition to the Farm Bill was intended to support private land access. The Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program grants money to states to enroll landowners in access programs. “If it wasn’t for VPA-HIP, we wouldn’t have the Illinois Recreational Access Program, period,” Miller said. “We have no other money.”

Access Education
Landowners tend to allow hunting access because it’s an important part of local culture. They view wildlife as a public resource, says Scott Hibbard, a ranch manager and landowner in Montana. Landowners, frankly, just like the idea of having people out on their place,” he said. “It’s just part of the ethic of being a Montanan.”

Also, ranchers or farmers often have practical reasons to get help from hunters to deal with the costs of wildlife feeding on their properties. Montana and other states often issue special depredation tags that allow walk-in access to private lands.

High concentrations of elk on private land can frustrate both hunters and landowners. “From a wildlife management perspective, it’s important that we have as many acres as possible to public access because then it actually enables a state to do their job in managing wildlife populations,” Webster said.

Hibbard is part of a group of Montana landowners trying new ways to provide access. The non-profit One Montana, which aims to bridge the rural-urban divide, in 2010 began holding discussions between hunters and landowners like Hibbard to find access and game management solutions. The group, called Common Ground, successfully advocated for improvements to Montana’s walk-in Block Management Access program.

In 2018, with the blessing of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Common Ground launched a plan they hope will attract landowners who aren’t already interested in Block Management.

Hunters who are accepted into the Montana Master Hunter/Hunter Advancement program complete a 50-hour advanced hunter education class. With that certification, they can get access to private lands that generally haven’t been open to the public. Thirteen landowners with ranches containing significant wildlife populations are participating today, and they helped develop the course curriculum. Washington State operates a similar Master Hunter program.

One Montana’s program manager, Zach Brown, hopes that sending out skilled hunting ambassadors with training in everything from the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation to the seasonal cycles of ranch work will help build trust with landowners. “I don’t think you can put a dollar sign on giving landowners good experiences with hunters because those just build on themselves,” Brown said.

Brown said the relationships formed through Common Ground program could someday help solve contentious access issues like the debate surrounding the Crazy Mountains.

A generation ago, knocking on doors and building relationships were the keys to access. While that is still necessary, it is no longer sufficient for maintaining the status quo, much less making sure future hunters have places to hunt.

“Complacency is dangerous in this case,” Brown said. “We should be trying to think really hard about how we can guarantee an outcome instead of just hoping that it’s going to be fine.”

Feature image via Captured Creative.