Depending on whom you talk to, the trend toward paying for hunting access is either a necessary evil or the End of Hunting As We Know It. Leases have a decades-long tradition in the South. But now the practice is growing in all parts of the country-whether in the form of an outright lease, a gentleman’s agreement in which a hunter gives a landowner cash for the right to hunt, or a package hunt. “It’s simple economics,” says Brian Murphy, of the Quality Deer Management Association. “Landowners are under pressure to get income from their holdings, and hunters are having a harder time finding areas to hunt. We lose 2 million acres of wild land a year in this country. That’s bad news any way you slice it, and I favor any incentive that keeps that land from becoming a strip mall or golf course.” Murphy says the arrangement has other benefits. It gives landowners a reason to improve wildlife habitat and manage game populations to produce better animals. And all the evidence shows that hunters who lease land have a greater sense of stewardship and responsibility for it than those who get on for free.
Murphy is not worried that the United States is headed toward a European model, where the common man no longer has the means to hunt. “There’s an enormous amount of public land open to hunters. The average guy can still find a place to hunt.”
Keith McCaffery, who was the Wisconsin state deer biologist for 37 years, doesn’t see the silver lining. “Privatization and commercialization are two great threats to hunting. Deer ought to be held in public trust and allocated to the entire public. If so, the common man is willing to be taxed to support wildlife. If not, you’re headed toward a European-style system where wildlife belongs to the privileged few, and that would unravel conservation as we’ve known it.” Too often, he says, farmers lease to people who disregard the goals of the local community. While the carrying capacity in an agricultural state like Wisconsin is as high as 100 deer per square mile, the human tolerance is only about 25 deer. “After that, you get car accidents and crop damage that locals won’t accept. But the guy leasing land often either doesn’t care about the locals or he doesn’t believe that there are that many deer on his lease. Even if he did, he can’t kill that many deer legally. You can run into severe overpopulation of deer very fast.”
But that may not be the worst of it. “To me, when you pay for hunting, you turn it into a sport. And that trivializes it,” says McCaffery. “Hunting deer is almost a sacred thing, something in our genes. It’s important that we not lose sight of meat as a motivation. The nonhunting public is pretty tolerant of those who hunt for food. But they hear about Â¿Â¿Â¿sport hunting’ and Â¿Â¿Â¿trophy hunting’ and they start to think of hunting as frivolous. We can’t afford that.”