Hunter access continues to be a big issue throughout the country. Habitat loss. The sale of public lands. Private lands closed to all hunting. The list goes on. And hunters are finding it harder and harder to find a place to enjoy the outdoors.
Habitat loss is the leading cause of less hunters afield. Not only that but it’s also the biggest threat to whitetails themselves.
“The landscapes that support deer hunting, especially whitetail hunting, are getting smaller and shifting in ownership,” said Larry Williams of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This is hurting access, and it has big implications to the future of hunting. The deer hunting community needs to focus on understanding these changes and develop a plan for sustaining deer hunting. Deer hunting is the single biggest piece of our nation's hunting culture. If we don't keep deer hunting healthy, the entire hunting culture is at risk.
“Trend data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Hunting and Fishing Survey show some troubling patterns,” Williams continued. “Survey data from 1991 through 2011 show a clear increase in the number of hunters owning land to hunt (75 percent increase). At the same time there has been a sharp increase in the cost of leasing land (121 percent increase) and a moderate increase in the number of hunters joining leases (24 percent increase). One theory to explain the relationship of these trends would be that as more hunters have bought land they are maintaining exclusive access to it. This causes other hunters, who can’t afford to buy land, to look for other routes of access. These other hunters are forced to lease land, thus we are seeing higher lease prices. Then, as lease prices go higher, median and low income hunters must pool their resources (i.e. join a club) just to access a lease. Thus we are seeing increases in membership in clubs."
"The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) estimates in 2010 the average size of non-industrial privately owned forest (NIPF) tracts in the United States fell below 100 acres for the first time. The process of large forest tracts being subdivided into smaller tracts is called parcelization, and smaller parcels don’t support deer hunting or the harvest of timber and other resources. USFS also estimates that on average NIPF tracts change ownership once every 26 years. So on average, every 26 years there is a chance of further parcelization. A study released in 2010 by the U.S. Geological Survey showed 1.9 million acres of forest in the Eastern United States were lost to development between 1973 and 2000. The same study showed an additional 1.2 million acres of agricultural land was lost the same way. And surely this rate of development remained strong in the 10 years spanning 2000 and 2010."
And it isn’t just private lands that we have to worry about. As previously mentioned, access to public land is another issue. It wasn’t but a few months ago that Representative Jason Chaffetz reintroduced H.R. 621 in an effort to sell more than 3.3 million acres of public land. That bill was shut down, but the threat and battle for our public lands is ongoing.
“Public lands provide some of the best deer hunting opportunities this country has to offer,” said Land Tawney of Backcountry Hunters. “From hunting whitetails in the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, to mule deer in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana, to Columbia blacktail in the Willamette National Forest in Oregon, we all live like kings. In fact, as Americans, we own the title to 640 million acres of public lands, they belong to all of us. Unfortunately, there is a movement to divest these very lands. This is not some pie in the sky idea from fringe elements of congress, actual bills are being introduced and voted on. States are actively selling land already. This is not a battle that ever goes away and the bad part, we only have to lose once and it’s gone forever. That said, the squeaky wheel still gets the grease and sportsmen have a powerful voice. We have used that voice effectively before and we must do it again.”
And while we sometimes classify habitat loss and public land access as two separate issues, they’re more closely related than we often remember. We’ve recently seen evidence of this in North Dakota as well as every other state in the country.
“As for hot button issues in North Dakota, while it may not be solely a land access issue, the loss of CRP and other habitat is impacting hunter access,” said Kevin Kading of North Dakota Game & Fish. “Our access program is tied to programs like CRP and other habitat, so if we lose the habitat, the access to quality land for hunting is diminished. We have seen a loss of habitat over the past several years, and our agency is focused on maintaining quality habitat on our access tracts. This has been a challenge; we could easily enroll acres into the program just to get more acres, but without the quality habitat to go along, what’s the point. Our hunters have told us through surveys that quality habitat matters.”
Hunter access is one of the biggest issues we face today as deer hunters. And this is one problem we know isn’t going away. So how do we combat it? I guess that remains the million-dollar question. For now, continue to make yourself heard.
Whitetails make the hunting world go round. Josh Honeycutt, deer hunting editor and "Brow Tines and Backstrap" blogger, knows a fair bit about killing mature deer. He was raised up hunting the river bottoms of Kentucky. And he still hunts there—among other places—to this day.
Follow along as he shares his adventures, experiences and knowledge of the white-tailed deer.