Western Private Land Hunting for Less
With the hunt only half an hour old, I held my scope on a nice mule deer buck about 40 yards away. He had four points on each side and antlers as wide as his ears. He moved slowly through the brush, seemingly unconcerned by my presence.
In 20 years of hunting Utah’s public lands, I’d never had such a perfect set up, yet I decided to let him go.
I’m not some purist who claims that enjoyment of the outdoors and the pursuit of game are the only real reasons to hunt. I wanted to kill a nice deer. But I was certain I would get another chance. As it turned out, in the next 24 hours I would pass on more than 20 bucks, five of them with four points per side.
You’ve seen the advertisements in the back of outdoor magazines. They promise the opportunity for trophy animals on private land. These are not high-fence hunts. They are generally large tracts managed partially or exclusively to benefit wildlife. The catch is the cost. An unguided private land hunt for trophy mule deer will usually cost more than $1,000. Guided hunts on the best ranches can sell for up to $10,000.
Hunters who can fork out the big money are in for an experience rarely duplicated on public lands. Decent bucks can be common and the numbers of hunters are limited, so hunters can often be selective about the animal they want.
Fortunately, some lucky hunters without huge bankrolls enjoy opportunities to hunt the same private ranches as the rich boys. Most western states have programs that allow public hunters access to private land. The programs are possible because wildlife belongs to the states — even wildlife on private land.
The flagship programs are undoubtedly those of Utah and Colorado.
Many years ago in Utah, landowners approached the state because they wanted to be able to sell permits that would allow them to hunt wildlife on their land. Although some already charged trespass fees, there was no guarantee that a hunter could draw the proper permit. The state agreed, as long as some permits would also be made available to the public through a drawing. Initially, ranches involved in the program were called Posted Hunting Units. A few years ago that name was changed to today's more politically correct Conservation Wildlife Management Units (CWMU).
About 70 landowners are involved in the CWMU program. These lands offer opportunities to hunt deer, elk, antelope and moose. Only Utah residents can apply in the public drawing for CWMU permits. In most cases, drawing odds for these hunts are as good or better than for the most popular public hunting areas.
For example, when I applied for the deer hunt described above I had two bonus points for limited entry buck deer areas. I studied the drawing statistics carefully to determine areas where my odds would be best. The Paunsaugunt in southern Utah is among the most popular limited entry areas for buck deer. Drawing odds for those permits can be 50 to 1. But there were a number of quality CWMUs where drawing odds were 3 to 1 or better. I applied for those areas, knowing that even with only two bonus points, my odds of getting the tag I wanted were good.
After the drawing, I received a permit for the area I designated as my first choice. The 9,000-acre ranch I hunted is owned by a wealthy out-of-state businessman and is managed almost exclusively for wildlife. While some units sell hunts, the permits for this ranch are generally reserved for the owner’s family. So unless someone is a relative, the only way to hunt this ranch is to draw one of the public permits.
When I contacted the ranch manager, he told me I could choose any three-day period to hunt between Sept. 1 and Oct. 31. I selected an early date because I hoped to take a buck still in velvet.
Even though mule deer are the focus of this ranch, taking a good buck is not guaranteed. National forest lands surround the ranch and wild animals come and go at will. A prolonged drought has reduced deer numbers and hunters on adjoining public lands generally shoot any legal buck they see. So although the area has great genetics, few bucks live long enough to reach record-class status.
I arrived in the evening and saw the buck described at the beginning of this story. The next day I spotted more than 20 bucks. Most years, during the regular general rifle season on public land, I would have gladly taken any of them. This year I thought I could do better.
I missed my best opportunity about 5 p.m. on the second day. Way up on a hillside I spotted the head of a good buck poking out from behind a bush. A look through the binoculars confirmed this was a great deer. His antlers were heavy and wide and extended an inch or two beyond his ears on either side.
Only the top half of his body was visible above the brush and it was a sharp uphill angle. When I pulled the trigger, the shot went high. The buck was gone in a flash.
I didn't have to wait long for another chance. About an hour later I saw a 3x4 buck bedded in the shade of a bush. I knew I could do better, so I took a picture. Just then a larger buck stood up and stepped out from behind the bush. I changed the camera for my rifle and quickly downed the 5x6 buck.
The ranch owner would have allowed me one more day of hunting. And I'm sure if I'd waited I could have taken a larger animal. But holding back was difficult because I'd passed on deer after deer that I would have been happy to take most years.
A list of CWMU areas and the species available is printed in the Big Game Proclamation from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The information includes the area, the number of permits available and the name and phone number of the landowner.
Although non-resident hunters cannot apply for these permits in the public drawing, they can purchase them from the CWMU operators. While most are expensive, it is possible to find bargains. For example, last year a friend got a great deer permit for about the same cost as a general deer tag. The specific unit is primarily managed for big bull elk. A month before the season, the operator still had a deer voucher left and no one he knew wanted it. He would have sold it to anyone who made an offer, and my friend happened to make the call.
This year a couple weeks before the deer season a flier on a bulletin board at a local sporting goods store offered two buck deer tags for $400 each. That’s less than a trespass fee for most western ranches.
The permit the hunter draws or buys is actually a voucher. The voucher is presented at a Division office and the hunter is then allowed to buy a tag for the appropriate game animal. In other words, if a non-resident hunter pays $2,000 to a landowner for a CWMU voucher for a bull elk, the hunter must still buy a non-resident limited entry bull elk tag from the state for $483.
Hunters interested in applying for a CWMU permit need to do some research well in advance of the January application date. Information about the size of the area, the type of terrain, hunt dates, etc., is available at the Division web site or by contacting the landowner.
Tips for any private land access program
- Most state wildlife agencies are strapped for cash. The employees are bureaucrats, scientists or law officers—not marketers. As a result, private land access programs don’t get a lot of publicity. Sometimes that makes it difficult to get accurate information. In addition, hunters often have to jump through extra hoops to participate. But that can also mean less competition because many hunters won’t devote the time and effort to learn about the programs.
- In most states, changes are made to these programs every year. Sometimes they are minor such as date changes or different landowners participating. In other instances an entire program might be totally revised. Make certain to check with game departments to get the latest information before you apply.
- Do your homework. Some ranches produce world-class trophies. Others are managed to produce large numbers of representative animals. Make sure you have realistic expectations. If you want a big bull elk, don’t bother applying for areas where a raghorn 4x5 is considered a good animal. Call landowners, but also try to speak to people who have hunted the area recently.
- Even access to an exclusive hunting area doesn’t guarantee success. This fall I had a permit for an antlerless elk hunt on an excellent unit. The 20,000-acre ranch normally holds about 800 elk. On past hunts animals were plentiful, but this year we did not see a single elk in four days of hunting. Other hunters there a couple weeks earlier told us they saw lots of animals. We saw several groups of elk on public ground outside the ranch, but our permit did not allow us to take one.
- Appreciate the opportunity. Millions of acres of private land have been closed to hunting because of careless or criminal actions of previous hunters. Even in programs where landowners receive some sort of compensation, opening their land to the public can increase their risk and liability. Obey the rules and treat the property with respect. Be a sportsman, not a slob. If you have a good experience, send the landowner a thank-you note.
Not every private ranch in the West produces trophy big game animals. There are vast differences in the size of the areas, the locations and in how they are managed. But the hunter willing to do some research can experience the hunting opportunity of a lifetime-- without having to cash in a life insurance policy to pay for it.
Here’s a rundown of programs in Western states:
Colorado began its Ranching for Wildlife program in 1985. The drawing for available public licenses is only open to residents. Non-residents must contact the landowners to purchase a permit.
About 30 ranches participate and the state restricts the program to those that have at least 12,000 contiguous acres with significant numbers of the animals to be hunted.
Landowners have a 90-day period during which they can schedule hunts, meaning they can offer rut hunts for elk and mule deer. Participating landowners can allow hunters who buy licenses to hunt with any legal weapon during any season.
Landowners who enroll must offer 10% of the male licenses and all of the female licenses for public drawing. In other words, a ranch that has 30 permits for trophy mule deer hunts must offer three permits to resident hunters in the public drawing. The number of licenses is determined in negotiations between each individual landowner and the Division of Wildlife. Participating ranches are required to allow public hunters to shoot trophy animals and to offer the same access to the ranch that they allow the private paying clients.
In addition to deer, antelope, elk and moose, Colorado’s program also offers opportunities to hunt bears, turkeys and bighorn sheep.
About 1,100 landowners have opened more than 8 million acres to hunters in Montana’s Block Management Areas (BMA).
Access to Block Management Areas is free to any licensed hunters. The state’s seven Fish, Wildlife & Parks administrative regions manage the areas in cooperation with the participating landowners. By August 15, each administrative region publishes a guide for its Block Management Areas. Guides can be obtained by contacting the proper regional office. The BMA guides list available areas and provide maps and regulations for them.
In most cases, interested hunters must then contact a designated representative to obtain written permission for hunting access.
The BMA program began in 1985 but was significantly expanded in 1996. BMA hunting is restricted to fall hunts. Spring bear and turkey hunts are excluded.
Because the program is voluntary, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks administration encourages hunters to display courteous, legal and ethical behavior and to obey the specific regulations established for each BMA.
In addition to the Block Management Areas, Montana also has online service called Doecowhunt. It is a web site developed to help Montana landowners who want doe or cow elk hunters and hunters who are looking for places to hunt does or cow elk. This is a private venture created to match the two interdependent groups.
Wyoming has Hunter Management Areas (HMA) open to resident or non-resident hunters who have received a permit or license through the normal process. These areas may include public lands that are within private land boundaries.
There is no charge for hunters to gain access, but they must have written permission for the specific HMA. Some areas require hunters to appear at a check-in site on specific dates to complete an application and to obtain a permission slip. Other HMA applications and permission slips are available online or through the mail.
Individual HMAs may have specific rules governing types of access, procedures, species available, etc.
In addition, Wyoming offers a separate walk-in access program for private lands in most counties. The size of the areas varies, as do the available species. While most areas are primarily designated for upland game, some offer access for big game hunts.
Some of the larger areas allow hunters to use horses. Information on the specific areas available in each county is available at the Wyoming Game & Fish Department web site.
Idaho’s Access Yes! program compensates landowners that allow licensed hunters onto their property. About 30 landowners participated in 2003, and the state hopes the program will eventually provide more than one million acres of hunting access.
Most of the properties allow unlimited access for hunters with an appropriate license. A complete listing of the participating landowners and any special rules or regulations is available at the Fish & Game website. The site also lists the species of big game and upland game available on each ranch.
The Landowner Signup System (LOSS) has been in place since 1989. The system was revamped a few years ago in an attempt to make it more equitable. While it provides lots of private land hunting opportunities, it remains complicated.
The state allocates authorizations to landowners who can exchange them for elk or antelope permits. They can use the permits themselves or sell them to residents or non-residents. Depending on a variety of factors such as property size, number of elk, game management unit, etc., landowners may or may not be compelled to allow public hunters access to their property in exchange for the game authorizations.
A list of landowners who receive LOSS authorizations is found on the Department of Game and Fish web site. It includes information such as name and phone number of a contact person, number of acres of big game habitat, whether hunting is restricted to the ranch or whether public land in the unit is also included, and number of permits.
The department also offers a list of licensed outfitters and guides. If you are a non-resident and you don’t know a specific area you would like to hunt, contacting some of the outfitters or guides might be a good starting point.
During the restructuring of the program, there were a number of suggestions for making the program simpler and fairer. A complete copy of the operational plan is available on the web site under the wildlife management link.
Arizona has a three-level private land access program that began in 1989. The Landowner/Sportsman Respect Program has almost 300 participants covering 12 million acres. This is a voluntary program and the Game & Fish Department assists landowners who allow public access by posting signs and creating stations for hunters to sign in and out.
The Adopt-A-Ranch Program goes a step farther by assigning specific volunteer groups to assist landowners with projects and maintenance that mitigate problems arising from allowing public access.
The Stewardship Program involves about 20 ranches that have a formal agreement with the Game Department. The department provides labor and materials for things like cattle guards and fencing to lessen the impact of public access.
To learn what lands are enrolled in these programs, hunters can contact Josh Avey, Access Program Coordinator, at 602-789-3624.
California’s existing program is called Private Land Management (PLM). There are more than 70 participating landowners with more than 800,000 acres of habitat.
The California legislature is considering a bill that would pay ranch owners $30 per acre for opening their property to the public. Users would be required to pay a fee of $50 to $100 for access to lands in the program and for maps.
The existing program has operated since 1979. To be included, landowners submit a wildlife management plan specifying the species they plan to emphasize. If approved, the property can receive state funding and becomes part of the program for five years before renewal is required.
To participate, hunters must contact the property owner or a designated representative. The landowner sets fees and access regulations. Charges can range from quite reasonable for wild pigs and deer to very expensive for species like Tule elk.
Since 1991, Washington has operated a Private Lands Wildlife Management Area program (PLWMA) on a trial basis. The program is currently under review to determine whether it should be made permanent or discontinued. A group of program participants recently recommended that the program be continued and expanded. Check the web site or call to learn what opportunities might be available in 2004.
Landowner and hunter associations got together and sponsored legislation that created the Access & Habitat Program in 1993. Landowners apply to receive state funds for habitat improvement projects in exchange for allowing public access to their property. Money for the projects comes from raffles for several premium hunts. Hunters who wish to learn the locations of these properties need to contact the Department of Fish & Wildlife.
This state does not currently have a private land access program. The good news is that most land in the state is government owned. The Department of Wildlife produces information sheets by species for each hunting unit. These sheets describe the terrain, access points, areas frequented by game, etc.