Hunting season is upon us. In Wyoming, hunting is an important and cherished thread in the fabric of our identity. Granted most of the land in the west is owned or managed by the federal government, not all of the state or federal land can be hunted, and over 40 percent of Wyoming land is in private ownership. Access remains limited as much of these public lands are surrounded by private lands with no available public access routes, especially in Sheridan, Johnson and Campbell counties.
This, coupled with game animals spending a considerable amount of time on private lands leaves many hunters seeking access, putting the hunter-landowner relationship in the spotlight. To maintain a healthy game population and thriving hunting community that is an important driver in our state’s economy, it is critical that this relationship stay positive and be based on a mutual respect and understanding of each other.
Almost every hunter has a story about a not-so-positive encounter with an unhappy landowner. Finding themselves being dressed down for the horrible and irresponsible behavior of others who have come before them. The landowner may have a bad taste in their mouth and is incredibly busy and frustrated, and in turn responsible and reliable sportsmen are denied the opportunity to prove themselves, leaving them on the other side of a no trespassing sign from the animals they have tags in their pockets for.
Risks and Rewards
The benefits of managing wildlife populations and maintaining the balance with their agricultural operations is not lost on the landowner, but do the risks outweigh the rewards?
Most often, the landowner is a farmer or rancher, and their livelihood depends on the land on which you are seeking access. For many, especially in Wyoming, their farm or ranch is their sole source of income. “Close the gate behind you” is a forgotten adage. It’s increasingly difficult for landowners to trust hunters when they’re left to deal with open gates, potential loss of livestock, destroyed fences, thoughtless littering and garbage dumping, noxious weeds, fires, torn-up pastures from off-roading vehicles, vandalism, property damage, and just plain unethical behavior.
To top it off, the fall season is an incredibly busy time for ag producers. It is after all, harvest time. On our operation, we are busy preparing to ship our calves in addition to rushing around completing a much as possible before winter comes and the opportunity is gone along with the warmth. The days are shorter, things don’t ever go as planned, and everything seemingly begins to compound. I can hear the clock ticking just thinking about it.
Dealing with an ever-increasing number of hunters calling and showing up at their door step steals precious time and takes them away from all of the important work that needs to be done, and increases their negative feelings in regard to hunting and hunting season.
For hunters without an existing, positive relationship with a private land owner–it may seem the odds are stacked against them. Cooperation and tolerance go a long way, and in the following we’ll look at the steps hunters can take to build and maintain a positive relationship with private landowners.
The Art of the Ask
It’s human nature to fear rejection, however if you don’t ask, it isn’t going to happen. The landowner certainly isn’t going to be coming to you. That said, there is an art to “the ask” and some key things to keep in mind, adapted from Jim Braaten’s article “The Ten Commandments for Seeking Landowner Permission” for The Sportsman’s Channel.
Timing is Everything
Plan ahead. Remember, fall is an incredibly busy time and time is money, so ask early and keep your visit short and to the point. Don’t wait until the last minute.
Bringing all of your buddies is a bad idea. A large group of strangers showing up at the door is intimidating, even to the ranch wife who is packing. Choose one or two spokespersons from your group to request permission, but be sure to explain the number of people who will be hunting in your group.
The Importance of a First Impression
You don’t need to show up in a penguin suit by any means, but put yourself together and appear responsible and respectable. You could lose out on the opportunity before you even ask so work on making a positive impression from the moment you arrive and step out of your vehicle.
Put Your Best Face Forward
Smile and maintain eye contact to build trust. If it isn’t your style, practice it because it could go wrong. Big smiles can appear phony and you can go a little far with the eye contact, resulting in the opposite outcome – making them extremely uncomfortable.
You just drove through a pasture filled with happy, healthy livestock. Acknowledge this and assure them that you will not put what they value most in jeopardy. Continue to build their trust and confidence in you by describing the care you intend to take.
Leave a Business Card
This gives peace of mind should they need to contact you, and if it’s your professional business card for your career, it shows them more about you as a person. If you don’t have a business card, you can get some printed for very low cost or even free from various online outlets by performing a quick Google search. Be sure to have your name, address, phone number, e-mail address, as well as your photo and information about the vehicle you’ll be driving while hunting.
Respect Their Decision
If you get a “no,” be gracious. The landowner owes no further explanation. Who knows, they may have second thoughts afterward and if you were gracious with your response (and left that business card), they have a way to get back in touch with you.
Offer to Help
By offering to help the landowner for a day or weekend in exchange for the right to hunt, you can really set yourself apart. Activities like planting trees, building or fixing fence, and sawing and splitting firewood can help you build a lasting relationship that benefits both parties.
Follow the Rules
Learn the landowner’s rules ahead of time and do not break them! Perhaps there are certain areas that are off limits, or certain days or times. Be respectful and remember the rules are there for a reason, even if you don’t know the reason or understand it.
Express Your Gratitude
Show your appreciation when granted permission. Be the hunter that continues to leave a positive impression that will reopen those same doors next season by stopping by with a basket of goodies, or gift certificate to a local restaurant when the season has wrapped up. Of course, the holidays are another good time to touch base, and send a card once again expressing your gratitude.
Another way to access private lands for hunting is through the Wyoming Game and Fish’s Access Yes! Program. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) instituted theis program that compensates landowners for allowing hunters and anglers access to their lands and waters. The program has also had success in increasing access to more private land encircled by public land. Over 30,000 acres of private land has been opened up to hunters. There are three programs within Access YES!, each with their own rules and regulations.
HUNTER MANAGEMENT PROGRAM
Hunter Management Areas (HMAs) are only open for hunting of specific species during specific times of year. The property entered into the program can be a mix of federal lands, and state trusts that lie within the boundaries of privately held land.
You must apply for access and if approved, receive a printed permission slip from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for that specific area. You may find the application on the program’s website wgfd.wyo.gov/Public-Access/Access-Yes.
WALK-IN AREA HUNTING PROGRAM
Walk-in Areas (WIAs) are certain private lands where the landowner has an agreement with WGFD to allow hunting. All private land enrolled in this program have signs marking the boundaries, and are accessible almost exclusively by foot only. As long as a hunter is hunting approved species during approved access times, explicit permission from the landowner to hunt is not required. You can find maps of Wyoming’s WIA locations on the program’s website.
HUNTER/LANDOWNER ASSISTANCE PROGRAM
To gain access to these properties, hunters must contact the owner directly. The Hunter/Landowner Assistance program is for landowners who aren’t interested in participating in the other programs, but are open to allowing a limited number of hunters on their property to assist with wildlife population control. Landowners may still charge a fee, as well as have additional rules to follow. You can find landowners enrolled on the program’s website.
The Power of One Dollar
It’s critical to note that a large part of funding for Access Yes! comes directly from donations when licenses are purchased. The funds from donations are only used to ensure more access for all hunters, and do pay for other state expenses. The program is successful, but there are currently more landowners interested in enrolling than there are funds to compensate them. Hunters have the power to change this! Wyoming Game and Fish notes that if just one dollar is donated on every license applied for, the program’s budget would double – so each dollar that is donated ends up opening an additional 3.5 acres for public access.
Keeping Landowners in the Program
Despite the relative success of the Access Yes! program, Wyoming Game and Fish receive complaints every fall from landowners enrolled. Landowners have been known to leave the program because of inconsiderate hunters. To keep in their good graces, know the do’s and the don’ts of their property, clean up, and most of all, be courteous!
Keeping a Tradition Alive – Together
Together, hunters and landowners share common ground in their interest in Wyoming’s land and wildlife, dependence on a healthy, and sustainable landscape, and the challenges they face when working or hunting the natural landscape. A relationship built on appreciation for different views, common understanding and mutual respect is key in keeping this important thread in the fabric of our identity strong for generations to come.
By: Candice E. Schlautmann for 82801