Access becoming a huge hunting hurdle

Ithaca, N.Y. — Nathan Knapp has been an avid hunter and outdoorsman for more than 30 years. But the Ithaca-area man might soon hang up his guns and bow.

The reason? Knapp said it’s getting harder and harder to find places to hunt.

And it’s only getting worse, he said.

“This past weekend I asked 22 people. Prior to that, I asked 67 people. I am out all the time pounding on doors,” Knapp said this fall. “You would not believe the things that I hear. Years ago, in the ’70s and ’80s, I could go down a stretch of a road and ask permission and people would say ‘Sure you can hunt.’ Now? No way."

Knapp’s plight isn’t unique.

A national survey released earlier this year indicates hunters are finding many former hot spots paved over or posted with “No Trespassing” signs.

Nearly 25 percent of hunters nationwide lost access to land in the past year, according to a  HunterSurvey.com poll. Launched in 2006, the website, along with AnglerSurvey.com and ShooterSurvey.com, helps the outdoor equipment industry, government fisheries and wildlife officials, and conservation organizations track consumer activities and expenditure trends.

More than half of those respondents who reported losing access to a hunting location said they spent less time afield as a result, while 11 percent said the lost land kept them from hunting altogether.

“Finding a place to hunt remains one of the biggest challenges to hunters and hunter recruitment,” says Rob Southwick, president of Southwick Associates, which designs and conducts the surveys at HunterSurvey.com. “As available lands for hunting diminish or change ownership, some hunters will inevitably grow frustrated and pursue other activities.” 

People looking for places to hunt still have several options. They can buy their own land, they can lease land from other owners, they rely on friends and neighbors who own property or they can visit state forests and other public land in the region.     

There is state land scattered throughout New York (notably the vast parcels in the Adirondacks and Catskills), but public holdings are far outnumbered by acreage in private hands. And the state land often takes a back seat habitat-wise to private land, especially tracts that are farmed and have crops like corn and soybeans.

“We’re fortunate that we have two forest preserves, the Catskills and the Adirondacks. Deer hunter surveys of folks in the Northern Zone show over half use state land. There’s a lot of public land in those two preserves,” said DEC wildlife biologist Mike Schiavone. “Outside the preserves, the majority of land is owned privately, but there are over 700,000 acres of state forest. The vast majority is open to hunting by the public.

“A lot of those areas are found everywhere from Albany to Buffalo. It’s pretty well distributed,” Schiavone said. “We have about 85 wildlife management units and almost all are open to public  hunting. There are over 200,000 acres. They are really popular.”

Public land is more heavily used in some parts of the state than others, Schiavone said. For instance, in the southeastern part of the state, only about 30 percent of hunters utilize public options, he said.

“In western New York, it’s about 40 percent. It varies around the state,” he said. “If there’s a lot of public land in your area, you are going to use it. Overcrowding is a concern.”

If you have the money and can round up some other hunters to contribute, leasing hunting land is becoming a more attractive option. Timber management company Cotton-Hanlon leases much of its 33,000 acres of land in New York and Pennsylvania to hunting groups, and some other property owners have been following suit.

“I’ve leased property the last 12 years. That’s how we hunt,” said Chris Yearick, vice president of the Chemung County Federation of Sportsmen. “We tracked down a landowner who had 400 acres. We lease from him. We organize a group of guys. I like knowing who is around me. I talked to my landowner. He’s comfortable with us and we work hard to keep him happy.”

There’s another way hunters can keep landowners happy, and guarantee they will be welcome to hunt – and welcome to come back. It’s called common courtesy, and sometimes it’s lacking, according to Ashur Terwilliger, District 4 director of the New York Farm Bureau.

It’s often in the best interest of landowners and hunters to work together, Terwilliger said. Too often, property owners are turned off to all hunting by a bad experience with one or two, he said.

“The deer are where the food is. They like corn, alfalfa, soybeans,” Terwilliger said. “Those are the places where they should be asking permission to hunt. If it’s overpopulated, nobody likes the damage from the deer. These guys have to realize this is my front yard and backyard. There’s no difference than their front door and back door. All we ask is respect it and respect our rights. You have to go as your own person and build your relationship.”

Trespassing complaints usually spike during deer season, and while sometimes they are the result of honest mistakes, they present a public relations headache for responsible sportsmen, said Lt. Tom Stoner of DEC’s law enforcement division.

“I think that the key is, hunters need to respect landowner rights and ask permission to hunt before they go out into the field,” he said. “Don’t wait until the day before (the season opens).”

For some hunters, building and maintaining good relations with landowners is a year-round effort. They will spend as much time knocking on doors and coming back to share their bounty as they do scouting locations and hanging tree stands.

“When I started out 20 years ago, it was about knocking on doors. I think a lot of people got away from that,” said avid deer hunter Shawn Bell of Horseheads in Chemung County. “I think there are still a lot of people out there willing to let you hunt, but a lot of people miss that first step. That’s one of the biggest things.”

Still, Bell said he’s concerned what things will look like in 15 years.

Knapp, on the other hand, is more concerned about finding places to hunt now. He says he does everything he should – knocking on doors, showing respect – and still gets one rejection after another.

“I wish I had a dollar for each house that I knocked on,” Knapp said. “I don’t have the money to go buy land. It’s sad. People are complaining about these deer and I say, ‘I’ll take care of them.’ I’m getting to the point that it’s time to sell my stuff and give it up.”

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