Fact Sheet 2: Revised May 2009
Recent statistics indicate that more than 1.7 million South Carolinians (68% of the population) enjoy some type of wildlife recreation every year. The demand for high quality hunting and outdoor recreational experiences has tripled in the last 30 years. These individuals are looking for solitude, escape, and adventure, but their chances of finding it are being narrowed. Every year in the U.S. 1.5 million acres are lost to urban expansion. Public land becomes increasingly more crowded, and more private rural lands have access restrictions placed on them.
As these conditions make outdoor opportunities harder to find, individuals become more willing to pay for quality hunting and outdoor recreational experiences. Wildlife-for-profit enterprises fill a need for those seeking outdoor recreation, while benefitting both landowners and the wildlife resource. Some landowners have found that by developing lease hunting enterprises, they can not only control access to their land, but they may also gain a financial reward for themselves in the process.
While most landowners enjoy having wildlife on their property, many fail to realize that wildlife are an economically valuable resource. Often they underestimate the number of people seeking quality outdoor experiences and an individual’s willingness to pay for the privilege of hunting, fishing, observing, or photographing wildlife. Once the only compensation a landowner was likely to receive in return for the use of his land was a token personal gift or a small payment for lodging, guiding, or meals. Today’s landowner may be compensated through fees that outdoor enthusiasts are willing to pay for the opportunity to enjoy outdoor recreation.
It would seem only fair that landowners who provide the essential components of quality wildlife habitat (food, cover, water, and space) to maintain resident wildlife populations on their land should be entitled to some compensation. Since 68% of the 12.2 million acres (8.3 million acres of timberland) in South Carolina are owned by nonindustrial private forest landowners, it becomes increasingly apparent that the future of South Carolina’s wildlife populations depends on private landowners. However, property owners need to realize that wildlife is public property, and they are only the custodians of these public resources on their lands. What they own and are willing to share with the paying public is the land and the opportunity for citizens to enjoy the wildlife resource on their property.
The purpose of this chapter is to introduce the concept of lease hunting and to discuss how leasing land for hunting can work to benefit the wildlife resource and the economic well being of the landowner.
Leasing enterprises have been in existence for more than 50 years. Texas has been the leader over the years, and in some regions of the Lone Star state, hunting is the most profitable use of the land. Leasing is not a new idea in South Carolina. For years hunters have been paying fees in many counties in South Carolina for the opportunities to hunt on private land.
Will fee access work in all situations for every landowner? The answer is no. Several factors contributed to the success of lease hunting:
If these criteria exist, there is yet another factor in developing a successful lease-hunting enterprise. Landowners must examine, evaluate, and inventory their own personality, land, wildlife, human, and financial resources.
The first step in deciding if a fee-access or leasing operation is going to work is to think about yourself. It should be stressed that even though lease hunting is catching on, not everyone is doing it. Landowners should ask themselves the following questions:
Once a decision to lease property for hunting has been made, landowners should decide on the type of hunting lease arrangement that they prefer.
There are four general types of leasing arrangements based on the duration of the lease agreement and the species of game allowed for harvest. The 4 types of agreements may be classified as long-term or annual, short-term, charge by type of animal harvested, and outfitter/broker. Each type of operation has specific advantages and disadvantages, and the arrangement selected depends on each individual situation.
The most common type of hunting lease agreement is the long-term lease. Under this agreement, the landowner provides a hunter (or group of hunters) the privilege of hunting on the land for a full year or for the duration of a hunting season. Often these leases allow harvesting all game species during their respective seasons, and the fee is assessed on a per-acre or lump-sum basis. Under this type of agreement landowners often reserve some hunting rights for themselves and their immediate family. These lease agreements often include nonhunting activities, such as camping, fishing, and photography.
Long-term leases usually result in good sportsmen-landowner relationships because the landowner knows the hunters personally. This type of arrangement also requires less management than other types of agreements and is often renewed for several years. In addition, the landowner knows that income that will be generated annually. However, this type of arrangement has two disadvantages: the hunters may be on the land at undesirable periods, and game populations may be inadequately harvested.
The second type of lease is the short-term lease. These leases may be on a per-day, weekend, or week-long basis. The landowner under this arrangement allows access for a specified time period and generally for a specific wildlife species. The traditional dove hunt is an example of this type of agreement. Often these types of hunts come in a “package,” which may include guides, lodging, and meals. This type of hunting experience requires intensive management and marketing to be successful.
This type of lease generally yields the highest monetary returns per acre and allows for a harvest of a designated number of game species present on the land. Landowners who select this type of arrangement should be aware that it is the most management-intensive form of lease, requiring a very “people-oriented” person. Usually there is no personal relationship with the hunters, which may increase the opportunities for miscommunication. Another disadvantage is that income will not be known in advance.
Under the third type of leasing agreement, the landowner charges hunters for the animals bagged during a particular season. Charges are often different, depending on size, sex, antler development, etc. Often there is a per-day fee and an additional fee for trophy animals taken. In a fee fishing operation, charges are generally based on pounds of fish harvested. The advantages and disadvantages are similar to the short-term agreement mentioned above.
The final type of leasing agreement is one in which the landowner leases the right of ingress to the land to a sportsmen’s club, hunting club, or outfitter. This organization or individual in turn manages the access to the land and controls hunters as specified by the landowner.
The landowner in this situation is freed from most management responsibilities and knows in advance what income will be produced. This type of lease also frees the landowner to carry on usual activities. Under this type of arrangement, the landowner realizes the lowest net return and has no direct control over the hunters once the lease has been signed. In addition, the landowner does not know the hunters and may not be aware of the activities occurring on his property.
The following information may help in developing a leasing operation.
Examine the land and wildlife. Determine what wildlife species are present and how numerous they are. Is there a marsh full of ducks in the fall? Are hardwood forests full of deer and turkey? Are mixed pasture and woods full of squirrels, quail, and rabbits? The best bet for success is to use what nature has provided. If the land has valuable timber, it might not be wise to take land out of wood production for food plots or other specialized habitat needs.
Any successful wildlife management endeavor must begin with careful planning. Be sure you have identified specific goals and details for obtaining those goals. Plan for the type of leasing operation that is preferred. If a landowner is very sociable and enjoys being around people, he or she may want to plan the type of operation offering guided hunts, meals, lodging, etc.
When considering a lease operation, plan on how much hunting the wildlife on the property can support. For example, assume there is 1,000 acres with an annual surplus of 30 deer. The landowner may want to have groups of 4 hunters, hunting for 2 days (10-day season), at a success rate of 60%. Landowners should remember to start small, and increase the operation as management skills increase. It’s important that landowners view the endeavor as a long-term commitment, not a get-rich-quick scheme.
Careful planning is also required to ensure that hunting operations do not interfere with normal daily/seasonal farming or forestry operations. For example, if calving occurs during the deer season, it would probably be best to suspend hunting from those pastures, or plan livestock operations so calving occurs after the deer season.
Any successful operation depends on repeat customers. Therefore, landowners need to be sure to manage land to maintain huntable wildlife populations. If landowners are having bird or deer damage to crops, hunting can help alleviate the situation. However, once the animals have been removed, the commodity that is being marketed (the wildlife) may be lost if the habitat is not being managed properly.
Natural resource professionals can offer advice on management programs. Landowners should not assume a person is a qualified wildlife biologist simply because he or she has a printed business card. Remember, wildlife is the foundation of the lease hunting business.
To obtain the maximum economic return for the investment, attract those with the most disposable income. This means advertising and marketing. Landowners must realize that it is against the law to sell wildlife because wildlife is public property. Only by legally harvesting a game animal may a private citizen take possession of that animal, so consider what is being sold and what is being purchased.
Through fee or lease hunting, landowners are renting limited access for the stated purpose of harvesting game. The hunter is paying for the recreational experience. The value of that experience varies according to upbringing and individual attitudes and personalities. However, studies reveal hunters want a reasonable chance for success, but quality hunting also depends on viewing wildlife (seeing a great deal of wildlife and harvesting a few, rather than seeing a few and harvesting most of them), privacy (having few other hunters around), and beautiful scenery.
Landowners should market what they have in a leasing operation and examine what the clientele want. While large trophy deer bring a substantial economic return, what percent of the market is looking for a trophy deer? A recent study revealed that less than 7% of the hunters are actually looking for a trophy when they go hunting. Therefore, a landowner would be wise to identify the target markets and provide a total recreation package promoting all the unique resources.
The first step in marketing a lease operation is identifying the type of clientele wanted. Landowners might consider targeting businessmen, corporations, or hunt clubs, or they should consider people interested in hunting for only one day versus a season. Once that has been completed, landowners should evaluate their needs for income, the amount of capital that can be invested, and their level of involvement. Finally, the landowner needs to decide what type of leasing arrangement will meet those needs, advertise in appropriate media and locations, set a price, and negotiate an agreement that will satisfy the client.
The best advertising is by word of mouth from satisfied customers. Successful and happy hunters will spread the word about good hunting opportunities. It may be necessary to locate, attract, and make arrangements with desirable clientele by advertising where the customers are. Use classified newspapers advertisements, sportsmen’s newsletters, professional magazines, outdoor writers, etc.
One of the most difficult parts of beginning a lease operation is determining a fair price. Landowners must take a realistic look at what it will cost them to run the operation, determine a break-even point, and add a certain margin of profit. Lease prices depend on several variables, such as proximity to an urban center, the game species that can be hunted, the aesthetic appeal of the land, the number of acres of land involved, the amount of wildlife on the property, and what other services and amenities will be provided (e.g., lodging, meals, guiding, game cleaning, food plots, etc.) Landowners should not automatically assume to charge the same as neighbors because services and opportunities may be different. Different products command different prices.
One of the biggest questions landowners ask when considering a leasing operation is “Am I liable for damages if someone gets hurt on my property?” Landowners who allow hunters access should understand what their legal responsibilities are to the hunter in providing reasonably safe hunting conditions.
The best protection for landowners and hunters is to have a written contract (lease) for the purpose of preventing misunderstandings. The lease should identify the responsibilities, rules, and restrictions of both parties. Leases should be negotiated and changed as situations change to provide a pleasant experience for both the hunter and the landowner. Landowners should consult an attorney in developing a lease agreement for their property. The following guidelines may be useful in assisting landowners in developing a lease.
Download the printer-friendly version of Hunting Leases (PDF, 158 KB)
This article is a publication of Clemson University Cooperative Extension's Forestry & Natural Resources team.
Please visit one of our sites for additional information and educational opportunities: