States are the primary entities that govern wildlife management and conservation on private land in the United States. With the exceptions of federal laws pertaining to migratory birds, threatened and endangered species, and interstate commerce of wildlife, states have broad authority to regulate and manage wildlife within their borders. This state-based approach is rooted in the federalist design of the U.S. government and empowers state wildlife agencies to develop policies that address their specific social, cultural, and environmental contexts. Different states often develop different solutions to common wildlife problems, fostering experimentation and innovation. In the process, states serve as “laboratories of democracy” that provide insights for policymakers across the United States.1The phrase was popularized by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann in 1932.
More than 60 percent of the land in the United States is privately owned,2The portion of privately owned land rises to 72 percent if Alaska is excluded. Daniel P. Bigelow and Allison Borchers, “Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2012,” USDA Economic Research Service, Economic Information Bulletin no. 178 (2017). meaning that successful wildlife conservation depends on private land stewardship.3Reed Watson, “Public Wildlife on Private Land: Unifying the Split Estate to Enhance Trust Resources,” Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum 23 (2013): 291-321. Private lands also disproportionately contain lands with abundant water resources and fertile soils that provide important wildlife habitat.4J. Michael Scott et al., “Nature Reserves: Do They Capture the Full Range of America’s Biological Diversity?” Ecological Applications 11, no. 4 (2001): 999-1007. Because of this, many states have developed policies that encourage private landowners to conserve habitat, help manage wildlife populations, and offer public access for hunting or other forms of recreation.5Donald R. Leal and J. Bishop Grewell, Hunting for Habitat: A Practical Guide to State-Landowner Partnerships (Bozeman: PERC, 1999).
This study analyzes policies from all 50 states across six major categories related to wildlife conservation, management, and hunting on private land. These categories include: 1) landowner hunting license exemptions and non-marketable landowner permits, 2) marketable landowner hunting permits, 3) Deer Management Assistance Programs (DMAP), 4) public hunting access programs, 5) wildlife damage management, and 6) property tax incentives. The analysis reveals the types of policies employed, their nuances, and frequency of use. The goal of this effort is to help wildlife managers, policymakers, and the public learn about state wildlife policy at a broad scale to develop, adapt, and refine policy to improve conservation and recreation outcomes on private lands.
Four of the six policy areas analyzed involve hunting. This is because hunting is core to the foundational mission and history of state wildlife agencies, which was to create a sustainable and regulated hunting system in response to declining wildlife populations in the late 1800s. Moreover, states fund their wildlife management agencies primarily through hunting license sales and from federal excise taxes on firearms and ammunition. Hunting is also the main way state game and fish agencies influence populations of game species, gather data on those species, and incentivize habitat management.6Dean Lueck and Dominic P. Parker, “Federal Funding and State Wildlife Conservation,” Land Economics 98, no. 3 (2022): 461-477.
These policies impact a significant land area and market in the United States. U.S. hunters spend $6.25 billion annually to access private land for guided fee hunts, pay for hunting leases, and buy land primarily for hunting. This figure does not include spending associated with lodging, equipment, food, transportation, or other expenses. The U.S. acreage that is leased for hunting or owned primarily for hunting is estimated at 356 million acres, 17.8 percent of the country’s contiguous land area.7Luke Macaulay, “The Role of Wildlife-Associated Recreation in Private Land Use and Conservation: Providing the Missing Baseline,” Land Use Policy 58 (2016): 218-33.
State policies often include a mixture of exemptions, benefits, incentives, and requirements to influence wildlife management on private land. These policy tools often overlap across multiple programs. For example, states may provide special big-game permits to landowners but require maintaining or improving habitat or providing public access in return. States may offer landowners extended hunting seasons but require them to provide wildlife data to the state, conduct certain habitat management practices, or provide public access. Below is a list of some of the characteristics within the six reviewed policy areas:
Landowner hunting license exemptions and non-marketable landowner big-game permits
- Habitat maintenance or improvement
Marketable landowner hunting permits
- Flexible or extended hunting seasons
- Property-specific harvest limits
- Habitat maintenance or improvement
- Technical assistance and advice
- Public hunting access required
Deer Management Assistance Programs (DMAP)
- Flexible or extended hunting seasons
- Property-specific harvest limits
- Deer harvest data gathered and provided to state
- Technical assistance and advice
Public hunting access programs
- Flexible or extended hunting seasons
- Property-specific harvest limits
- Non-marketable landowner big-game hunting tags
- Marketable landowner big-game hunting tage
- Habitat maintenance or improvement
- Liability protection
Technical assistance and advice
Wildlife damage management
- Expanded hunting opportunities
- Property-specific harvest limits
- Marketable landowner big-game hunting tags
- Technical assistance and advice
- Recreational hunting required
Property tax incentives
- Habitat maintenance or improvement
Supporting researchers and I found that states differ widely in their application of private land-focused wildlife management policies, but we found some consistent themes among broad categories. Our analysis shows that state policies routinely grant unique privileges, incentives, and benefits to private landowners to encourage wildlife conservation and hunting. This includes marketing and selling hunting permits and granting exemptions from requirements to purchase hunting licenses. We found that when multiple states made use of the same broad policy tool, each state often tuned the implementation details to its specific needs. Some policies, such as hunting license exemptions, appeared to be in place as a kind of blanket benefit to landowners without any conditions. We also found many states created incentives related to big-game species to encourage public policy goals of habitat conservation, data collection, and public hunting access on private land. We also found states created unique compensation methods and other approaches to create win-win approaches to wildlife management.
In 2021 and 2022, we researched all 50 states for information on six major policy areas that affect wildlife management on private lands. We compiled summary information about regulations and policies into multiple spreadsheets, available in full in the online Appendix, and identified key characteristics that would be useful in assessing policy characteristics of private land conservation. After assembling the text from the regulations, we reviewed all 50 states and classified them into a workable number of categories for broad assessments. Although many policies contain nuances unique to the state involved (e.g., some states grant a hunting license exemption for any landowner, while other states only grant one for use on agricultural lands), we categorized them into broad themes based on the general characteristics of the program and included excerpts from the text of the policy in the Appendix as a way to quickly see these nuances.
In the Appendix, we have included the name of each policy, a web link to a state agency page describing the policy, the category we placed it in, and key excerpts. We have downloaded a copy of state agency websites and documents describing the policies as they appeared in April 2023 to maintain this reference as web links change over time.
Tag and Permit Terminology
Many states use similar language to describe various regulatory aspects of hunting licenses, permits, tags, and exemptions. However, some states use different terms to describe functionally similar topics. In general, the term “hunting license” is almost always used to describe a document that must be purchased by a hunter in order to have the right to hunt within the state. In most states (if not all), a hunter must also use “tags,” or “permits,” to harvest specific big-game species (deer, elk, moose, etc.).8The term “tag” is often used colloquially to describe this permit to harvest a particular game species, nearly always for big game. While some states use the term “tag” in their regulatory language, most states use “permit” to describe the ability to harvest a particular game animal. In this analysis, we use the terms interchangeably but generally use the term “permit” due to the widespread use of this term in regulatory language to describe big-game permits. The way in which hunters acquire these permits varies greatly by state. In some states, a hunting license comes with a specified number of permits. In other states, big-game permits must be purchased separately in addition to a license. In the case of many western states with comparably low-density game populations, permits sometimes must be acquired through a random lottery.
Hunting License Exemptions, Free or Reduced-Price Permits, and Non-Marketable Permits
We found a variety of state policies that provide landowners special privileges related to hunting that we have broken into three sub-categories. We address them within a single section due to similar characteristics of the benefit accruing to the landowner with minimal requirements, usually as a privilege that comes with land ownership. The programs are generally restricted to the landowner and immediate family members (and sometimes tenants or employees working on a property), and the privileges cannot be sold to other individuals (non-marketable). The first and most widespread policy provides hunting license exemptions, which allows landowners (and specified individuals) to hunt on their own property without purchasing a hunting license. Other states have programs that require landowners to complete an application to receive a free or reduced-price hunting permit, usually for deer and turkey. Finally, non-marketable permits are similar to the free or reduced-price permits, but they occur in western states where there are lotteries to obtain big-game hunting permits, and they offer landowners guaranteed or preferential opportunities to acquire big-game tags but do not allow those tags to be sold on the open market.
A major category of landowner benefit through hunting privileges involves the provision of landowner tags, some of which may be sold on the open market (marketable). Because of the significant distinction in the ability to sell tags, we use this feature of state policies to distinguish between “marketable landowner tags” and other landowner benefits such as license exemptions and preferential opportunities to acquire tags described above. (Some states have multiple programs, some of which provide marketable tags and some of which provide non-marketable tags to landowners.)
Deer Management Assistance Programs
We distinguish landowner hunting license exemptions and tag benefits as a separate category from Deer Management Assistance Programs (DMAP). DMAPs generally expand hunting privileges to landowners in association with a property-specific hunting plan that is developed or approved by a state wildlife agency. Wildlife management plans are usually connected to a data collection process for deer harvested on the properties. The programs occur in states where the majority of land is in private ownership and serve as a way for the state to gather improved information on deer herds and as a way to manage high deer densities by increasing antlerless harvest. States provide harvest permits that are customized for each property, sometimes allowing the harvest of deer (particularly antlerless ones) that do not apply toward standard bag limits. These programs may also provide for an extended hunting season. Although DMAPs have many similar characteristics to some of the benefits provided to landowners through hunting tag programs, they usually require a specific wildlife management plan for a property, are associated with abundant white-tailed deer populations, and occur in states that do not have a competitive lottery process for hunting big game.
Property Tax Program Categorization
Our analysis of property tax incentive programs revealed a general trend of two categories: states that allow forested and agricultural properties to receive property tax reductions, and states that also allow open space, wildlife management, or other conservation-oriented activities to qualify. In our effort to categorize these programs, we found some states do not specifically allow conservation or open space as a category in its own right, but they do allow forested lands to be managed as wildlife habitat. In these cases, because wildlife habitat was limited to forested land cover, we categorized them in the category of only allowing forested and agricultural properties to receive the tax benefit. Oklahoma, by contrast, defines agricultural land broadly to include lands used for wildlife management. In this case, we have classified it as also allowing conservation-oriented use given a lack of any land cover restrictions in the activity. We recognize that there is a significant wildlife habitat and conservation component to many states’ property tax regimes that are classified as only agriculture and forestry, but for the purposes of classification we have only included programs in the conservation category if they provide broad leeway for all types of land cover to qualify in some kind of open space, wildlife habitat, or conservation activity.
Private Land-Focused Wildlife Management Policies
State wildlife agencies have developed a wide range of policy tools and regulations to help private landowners conserve and manage wildlife. These policies may grant unique incentives or benefits for a variety of reasons, including:
- Owning land that supports habitat and wildlife
- Mitigating wildlife damage
- Maintaining or creating beneficial wildlife habitat
- Providing public access to private hunting land
- Gathering data about wildlife populations on private land
- Reducing disease transmission and prevalence
The policies we reviewed sometimes focus on one of these reasons, but more often, policies address multiple purposes and goals. In the following six sections, we delve into how each policy category addresses these topics.
License Exemptions, Free or Reduced-Price Permits, and Non-Marketable Landowner Permits
This policy category includes three sub-categories that provide landowners direct hunting privileges but do not allow them to sell those privileges to others. We identified 1) hunting license exemptions, 2) free or reduced-price permits for specific species, and 3) non-marketable landowner permits in states with competitive lotteries. Hunting license exemptions are the most common benefit, occurring in 25 states, followed by free or reduced-price permits, and non-marketable permits (Table 1). Nearly all of these policies provide hunting benefits for immediate family members, dependents, employees, and/or tenants living on or leasing their land. We elaborate on the details of each of these categories in the sections below.
In 25 states, private landowners may hunt on their own property without purchasing a license (Appendix 1), although they must still comply with season and bag limits.9Many states allow hunting of certain non-game, invasive, or pest species without a hunting license. This is a broad exemption, although several states include acreage, residency, and/or land-use requirements to qualify for it (e.g., Maine requires 10 acres of land to be used exclusively for agriculture; in Delaware any person who owns or lives on a farm of 20 acres or more qualifies). Eight states (Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Tennessee) require the land to be used for agriculture or cultivation. Several states that grant this exemption still require landowners to purchase particular stamps or permits for particular groups of game (e.g., Maryland requires purchase of state and federal migratory bird stamps or a furbearer permit), but many states make no mention of these requirements in their policies. Six other states (Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, and Wisconsin) include license exemptions for specific small game, furbearers, or pest species. Of these, Iowa and New York require the land to be used for agriculture as well.
The prevalence of regulations specifically providing exemption on agricultural lands suggests that managing wildlife damage to crops is a motivating factor for many of these policies. These exemptions tend to occur in eastern states, which had a long history of hunting on private land prior to any regulation. (The first hunting regulations in the United States began to be implemented in the late 1800s, with some states not requiring hunting licenses until the 1920s.)10Dean Lueck and Dominic P. Parker, “The Origins and Evolution of the First American Environmental Protection Agencies,” Working Paper (March 2020). These license exemptions appear to have originated during a time in which many landowners were already accustomed to hunting on their own property without a license.
Free and Reduced-Price Permits
We found 12 states that offered free or reduced-price tags for big game and wild turkey that could be acquired through an application process (Appendix 2). These programs generally sought to confirm landowner residence prior to providing exemptions. These permits are nearly always associated with deer and turkey, but Wyoming and Nebraska include other big-game species.
Non-Marketable Landowner Permits
Eight states (Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) offer landowners guaranteed or preferential opportunities to acquire big-game tags but do not allow those tags to be sold on the open market (Appendix 2). In many cases where big-game tags are highly limited and competitive, states often allocate a percentage of the total tags available in a specified hunting area to a special landowner lottery. This usually provides a much greater chance for landowners to acquire tags to hunt on their property or, under some states’ policies, to hunt throughout the larger hunting unit that encompasses their property.
In Wyoming, permits can only be used by the landowner or an immediate family member; in Nebraska and Utah, the list includes tenants living on the property; in Idaho and Oregon (with the exception of pronghorn antelope tags), such permits can be designated to anyone, but state law prohibits selling the permits. To qualify, these states generally stipulate a certain number of acres owned under a particular land use (e.g., agricultural use) or within a game management zone, but none of them require additional habitat improvement work or public hunting access components.
These permits, while not marketable to the public, do provide a form of compensation to the landowner for loss of forage and damage caused by wildlife.
Marketable Landowner Permits
Marketable tags allow landowners to receive a financial benefit from big-game species residing on their land by granting them the ability to sell hunting tags on the open market.11Catherine E. Semcer and Jack Smith, “Conserving Wildlife Habitat with Landowner Hunting Permits,” PERC Policy Brief (2021). The programs we reviewed have a number of specific goals and justifications, including:
- Compensating landowners for the resources used by wildlife
- Creating private land hunting opportunities that would not exist otherwise
- Encouraging maintenance or enhancement of habitat
- Increasing wildlife populations
- Promoting cooperation between agencies and private landowners
- Mitigating crop damage and forage loss
- Discouraging the harboring of game animals on private land during public hunting seasons
- Relieving hunting pressure on public lands by increasing it on private land
- Creating public hunting opportunities on private land
Nine states have developed programs whereby landowners can acquire hunting permits and sell them to hunters (Appendix 3). These programs often have particular requirements. Four states (California, Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon) require specific habitat practices for landowners to acquire these tags. Six states (Colorado, Kentucky, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington) include requirements for landowners to provide public hunting opportunities on their land in exchange for these marketable landowner tags. The state of Mississippi has a marketable landowner tag that is used only for alligator hunting; this is the only such program in the country that does not explicitly require habitat improvements or public hunting opportunities.
Deer Management Assistance Programs
Deer Management Assistance Programs (DMAP) occur exclusively in eastern states with relatively high percentages of private land ownership. They are also limited to white-tailed deer, a game species that is generally abundant and, in many locations, overabundant. DMAPs generally prescribe a specified set of practices and harvest approaches and require data about the age and type of deer harvested to be gathered and reported to the state wildlife agency. Many state agencies describe the primary benefit of these programs as the ability to gather detailed age and harvest information about deer herds on private land. Additionally, many states cite management objectives of healthier deer populations, lower deer densities, disease reduction, damage prevention, and fewer deer-vehicle collisions.
Practically, DMAPs often seek to increase the harvest of females to raise the male-to-female ratio of the deer population. This allows for larger buck populations while simultaneously reducing the density of deer in an area, promoting greater recruitment of fawns into the population due to reduced competition. These programs demonstrate a type of policy innovation that allows for win-win opportunities through the provision of expanded hunting opportunities to landowners in exchange for a variety of benefits for state agencies and healthier wildlife populations.
Nineteen states, many in the South or Great Lakes Region, have DMAPs (Appendix 4). In these states, landowners generally receive a set number of harvest tags that can be used by designated people, sometimes during an expanded hunting season. DMAP tags usually provide increased antlerless harvest opportunities for participants in the program. Additionally, participants in DMAPs often receive technical assistance from natural resource management agencies, including development of management plans, harvest recommendations, biological data from harvested deer, and other data about the land and deer populations.
Public Hunting Acces Programs
One of the first public hunting access programs related to wildlife was developed in Pennsylvania in 1936, which provided certain assurances to landowners in exchange for allowing free public access for hunting. Currently, the state’s program provides liability protection, offers technical assistance, and provides habitat improvement resources to landowners.12Pennsylvania Game Commission, “Hunter Access Program,” accessed April 21, 2023, https://www.pgc.pa.gov/HuntTrap/Hunting/HunterAccessProgram/pages/default.aspx. This model to enhance public access to privately owned lands that hold wildlife was widely adopted by other states (Appendix 5) and given federal funding support of $50 million in the 2008 Farm Bill as the Voluntary Public Access-Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP). The program was reauthorized in 2014 at $40 million and again in 2018 at $50 million.13U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program,” Natural Resources Conservation Service, accessed April 21, 2023, https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/voluntary-public-access-and-habitat-incentive-program. As of 2019, this Farm Bill program has provided grants to 30 states,14Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group, “Voluntary Public Access & Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP),” Sportsmen’s Priorities for Conservation and Access in the 2018 Farm Bill, https://www.trcp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Public-Access-fact-sheet.pdf. with 26 states funded in 2020.15U.S. Department of Agriculture, “2020 VPA-HIP Project Award Summaries,” Natural Resources Conservation Service, accessed April 21, 2023, https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/2020-vpa-hip-project-award-summaries. The program provides grants to states to develop various incentive programs to enhance private land access for the public. In addition, states have also begun experimenting with other models to support public access to hunt on private land.
While most of these programs focused only on access, some states have used these programs to incentivize various land management practices. Three states require habitat improvement. Oregon’s Access and Habitat Program, created in 1993, predated the VPA-HIP Farm Bill funding and led the way for including habitat improvement requirements in a public access program. Indiana’s Private Lands Access program was also an early program to require landowners to develop a wildlife management plan for their property that is used to maintain eligibility in the program. In recent years Iowa has also adapted similar requirements of habitat improvement work as part of qualifying for its public hunting access program.
Fifteen other states provide special incentives for habitat improvement practices associated with public access programs. These include financial payments for habitat conservation that aren’t otherwise available to landowners, assistance developing management plans, and assistance or bonus payments for enrolling land in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.
Although many of the public access programs are supported by federal grant dollars, several states have made efforts for their public access programs to become self-sufficient. Some programs are supplemented by donations or surcharges on hunting licenses (e.g., South Dakota and Wyoming), while others (e.g., California’s SHARE program) have fee-based lotteries to raise funds to support ongoing leasing arrangements with landowners.
As noted above, many states have adopted public access components to their landowner permit opportunities that operate independently of the broader VPA-HIP programs. Six states (Colorado, Kentucky, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington)16 Appendix 3. incorporate requirements for public hunting opportunities to be provided in exchange for the marketable landowner tags.17Semcer and Smith, Conserving Wildlife Habitat. In Montana, landowners can enter into an agreement with their state natural resource management agency whereby they receive one big-game permit and hunting license for allowing a minimum of three public hunters to hunt on their private property. In hunting units where permits may take a lifetime to draw through the state lottery system, this can be a significant benefit.
Wildlife Damage Management and Hunting
Landowners across the United States incur costs from wildlife such as crop damage, forage loss, disease transmission to livestock, and other means. Every state grants landowners expanded privileges and opportunities to use lethal and non-lethal control methods for nuisance animals that are not federally protected (Appendix 6). While some policies expand traditional hunting practices via increased tags or expanded seasons, the majority of wildlife damage programs do not maintain limitations related to fair chase, bag limits, licenses, and seasons that are the hallmarks of legal, regulated hunting in the United States.
The more restrictive and regulated wildlife damage policies include expanded regulated hunting opportunities through the allocation of additional hunting tags to qualifying landowners each year. Other states require permits to harvest or otherwise remove specific classes of wildlife. Idaho and Washington both note that monetary compensation could be available to compensate crop owners for repeated damage that has not been resolved through other methods such as hunting. For damage claims caused by many game species and wolves, Wyoming requires property to have allowed hunting by a sufficient number of hunters (public or private) to be eligible for compensation. Less restrictive wildlife damage policies, which are common in many states, include those that allow landowners to remove non-game animals caught doing damage, as well as programs that allow certain nuisance/varmint species to be killed at any time.
In general, the regulatory limits on managing damage-causing animals vary based on whether those animals are native, invasive, game species, special-status, or protected at the state or federal levels. Some states, such as Vermont, require landowners to attempt non-lethal methods to control damaging wildlife prior to using lethal methods and require them to continue to integrate non-lethal methods when implementing lethal measures. Washington similarly encourages the use of non-lethal methods prior to trapping wildlife. In some cases, non-native invasive species, such as wild hogs in Texas or nutria in Louisiana, can be killed on sight year-round without a license or permit and by a variety of means because of the damage they can cause and the speed at which their populations can grow and spread.
The wildlife damage programs that have the most similar characteristics to hunting programs involve managing damage from big-game species. In general, the harvest of big-game species causing damage is more tightly regulated than for small game. In the West, where big-game hunting permits are difficult to acquire and highly valued, many states have programs that landowners must enroll in, with proof of wildlife damage, to obtain a species-specific hunting tag (e.g., Nevada and Oregon). In the East, where white-tailed deer are often overabundant, wildlife damage programs often allocate permits to landowners or their agents that allow for longer seasons or year-round harvest opportunities that do not count toward regulated bag limits.
Wyoming’s Landowner Coupon program partially compensates landowners for forage consumed by deer, elk, and pronghorn on their property. Landowners receive a modest payment—currently $16—for each animal harvested from their property. We did not identify any other state offering direct compensation to landowners based on the number of game animals harvested from their property.
Property Tax Incentives
All states have property tax incentive programs (often called use-value assessments) that assess certain properties at a fraction of their market value for property tax purposes. The value is usually based on the income generated by agriculture or forestry activity, which results in a far lower valuation than market prices for land (Appendix 7). These programs are generally designed to promote particular land uses of agriculture, forestry, and open-space conservation, and they generally serve the purpose of discouraging the development of land to its “highest and best use,” which in many cases might be subdivision and sale for residential or commercial development.
Our analysis of property tax incentives for conservation revealed that 25 states have property tax incentives for agricultural or forestry uses, while 23 states have property tax incentives for agriculture, forestry, or some form of conservation or open space. (Two states, Alaska and Hawaii, have property tax programs that vary by county.) The type of conservation and open-space program varies by state, with language including “environmentally sensitive areas” (Georgia), “open-space” (Connecticut), “conservation management of woodlands, prairies, wetlands and other undeveloped lands” (Illinois), “non-forest wildlife habitat” (Indiana), “native prairie” (Iowa and Minnesota), and “substantially natural, wild or open condition” (Massachusetts). There is some ambiguity with classification of these policies as some states allow forested lands to be managed as wildlife habitat (Michigan) but do not provide a general category of wildlife habitat for non-forested lands.18See the Methods section for a full explanation. Oklahoma specifically defines “wildlife management” as a form of agricultural use. Alaska and Hawaii have property tax codes that vary by county (or borough in Alaska), with some including various use-valuation programs.
Based on the regulatory language in the property tax benefits, it appears that the inclusion of conservation activities is not fully adopted in all states because of the desire to encourage and promote traditional economic activity through farming or forestry. Although conservation uses of properties often include managing land for wildlife or recreation, which can create substantial economic activity, the property tax systems may not have adapted to this expanding conservation-oriented land use, or there may be concern that conservation land may result in the fallowing and idling of land without any corresponding economic benefit.
This report reviewed various aspects of wildlife management in the United States. We found that states tailor their wildlife conservation programs and policies, specifically ones regarding hunting, around local context, factors, and needs. We also identified several themes that appeared throughout many state wildlife management policies.
Regional differences in private versus public land ownership, wildlife density, and habitat characteristics seem to affect the types of private-land-focused wildlife management tools that states use.
In eastern states composed of greater than 60 percent private landholdings, access to private land is often the most limiting factor for hunting, and markets for hunting tend to be focused on acquiring hunting leases and, to a lesser extent, purchasing guide services.19Macaulay, The Role of Wildlife-Associated Recreation. These states tend to have abundant, or even overabundant, deer populations with generous bag limits. The eastern region of Maryland, for example, allows hunters to harvest up to 35 antlerless deer—15 by archery, 10 by muzzleloader, and 10 by firearms.
It is against this backdrop that Deer Management Assistance Programs and hunting license exemptions most commonly occur, and where we see a relative lack of public access programs. In these areas, state wildlife agencies must partner with landowners to better understand the population dynamics of deer herds and achieve deer management goals, which has resulted in the expansion of DMAPs. Eastern states also have a large proportion of hunting license exemptions, possibly dating back to the development of the original game management laws, when landowners were already accustomed to hunting on their own property without a license. It appears paradoxical that in eastern states with the majority of their land in private ownership that we find a comparative lack of public access programs. This may be due to the fact that private hunting leases are common in these states, making public access programs a state-based competitor in the market for private hunting leases, a dynamic that may not be welcomed by either hunters or private landowners who may favor private lease arrangements.
In contrast, western states often have vast areas of public land open to hunting. Big-game wildlife populations in these states, however, are generally of lower density than populations in the East, and they often spend significant amounts of time on private lands during hunting season.
In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for example, elk spend the warmer months in the high country, which is overwhelmingly public land, but spend 80 percent of their winters on private lands, which are lower elevation and provide better forage and cover.20Arthur Middleton et. al, “The Role of Private Lands in Conserving Yellowstone’s Wildlife in the Twenty-First Century,” Wyoming Law Review 22, no. 2 (2022); Laura C. Gigliotti et. al, “Wildlife Migrations Highlight Importance of Both Private Lands and Protected Areas in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” Biological Conservation 275 (2022). This has made private landowners essential partners for state wildlife agencies, which commonly use landowner hunting tag programs to achieve management goals and to foster goodwill and habitat conservation.
Additionally, western states often have big-game species present that have been extirpated from broad swaths of the East, including elk, pronghorn, and moose that are often found at low densities or only in particular areas of a state. Because of the comparatively limited availability of these animals for hunting, many of these states hold competitive lotteries as a way to ensure sustainable hunting. The comparative scarcity of big-game tags in these states results in these tags sometimes being valued in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
It is against this backdrop where both marketable and non-marketable landowner tag programs and public access programs are most commonly found. In western states with competitive lotteries for big-game tags, the lotteries often apply equally to private landowners and the general public, meaning that if landowners do not successfully win a lottery for a big-game permit, they would not be able to hunt those game species on their own land. This lack of ability to hunt a game species on one’s own property frustrates landowners in some western states who feel that they are providing habitat and forage and/or sustaining crop damage by wildlife, yet they are not allowed to enjoy any recreational hunting benefits.21A.R. Hanbury-Brown, J.W. Stackhouse, and L.T. Macaulay, “Elk Conflict with Beef and Dairy Producers Poses Wildlife Management Challenges in Northern California,” Ecology and Society 26, no. 1 (2021): 23. Landowner tag programs have been developed as a way to recognize that private landowners provide habitat for game species and should have the opportunity to hunt these species on their own land. The high occurrence of public access programs in these states may be due to the strong culture of open access for hunting on public lands that seems to extend to an expectation for access to private lands in these states.
Landowner Permits and Hunting Markets
The development of landowner tag programs—both marketable and non-marketable—is sometimes controversial, with opponents arguing that these tags are a form of privatization of wildlife and violate important hunting norms that arose in America during colonial times. In those times, colonists enjoyed hunting privileges that in Europe were reserved for the aristocracy, creating a strong tradition that hunting should be open to all and not reserved for the wealthy. One criticism of landowner tags is that they create an unfair advantage for wealthy individuals to purchase land and acquire rare big-game tags. Although this situation may occur, it was the passage of trespassing laws in the late 1800s, whereby landowners could prevent access to their properties, when wildlife residing on private lands were made largely inaccessible to the broader public.
Another concern about marketable landowner hunting permits is that they are a form of commercialization of wildlife and raise concerns about a return to the unregulated market hunting of the 1800s, which led to decimation of many wildlife species and contributed to the extinction of the passenger pigeon. But others note the established and regulated markets for wildlife in the form of fish, oysters, crab, and furbearers as examples of sustainable use of wildlife resources in the context of a regulated market economy.
Proponents of marketable landowner permits note that approximately 16 percent of hunters hunt outside of their state of residence and are required to purchase non-resident licenses, which are generally priced much higher than resident licenses.22U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Census Bureau, “National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation: 2016,” (October 2018). These out-of-state license sales are a significant source of revenue for many western wildlife agencies. However, state policies that do not provide landowner tags, especially marketable tags, prevent landowners from benefiting from the market in the same way that wildlife agencies do.
We found that virtually all of the marketable landowner tags in the country cite a number of public benefits of the program, and each program required either public hunting access or wildlife habitat improvement to participate.23Appendix 3. The only exception is a program for alligator vouchers in Mississippi. Despite the concerns raised by opponents, it appears clear that the income generated by marketable landowner tags creates an incentive for landowners to view wildlife as a valuable resource and encourage increased populations.24Semcer and Smith, Conserving Wildlife Habitat.
Across all the policy areas we evaluated, there are a relatively few that require proactive habitat improvements to receive benefits. Across the United States, the most common requirement for landowners to qualify for hunting programs is owning a minimum amount of acreage. Large acreage requirements support wildlife by encouraging ownership of large unbroken parcels of land, but there are few stipulations on how that land is managed. A handful of marketable landowner permit programs include specific habitat stewardship requirements. Finally, an increasing number of public hunting access programs are incentivizing or requiring habitat management efforts.
In the nine states with marketable big-game hunting permit programs, four (California, Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon) require specific habitat practices for landowners to acquire these permits. Habitat improvement practices are also required by public hunting access programs in Indiana, Iowa, and Oregon, and special incentives for habitat are provided by 14 other states as part of their public access programs. Given the ongoing challenges of habitat loss due to invasive species, subdivision, development, and other factors, other states may take inspiration from these incentive programs to facilitate improved conservation outcomes through habitat improvement and conservation.
States play a crucial role in shaping wildlife management and conservation on private lands in the United States. This analysis sought to provide a broad overview of the types of wildlife policies employed by states, their nuances, and their frequency of use. To our knowledge, no methodical review of state wildlife policies affecting private lands across all 50 states has been conducted before, and we believe this summary and the accompanying data detailing each state’s policies will be useful for informing ongoing discussions on state wildlife policy.
Giving landowners incentives or benefits in wildlife management is a widespread feature of state wildlife management policy. Although the rationale varies—providing public access, encouraging habitat provision, fostering partnership and information gathering, or responding to damage—every state has at least one program that grants landowners the ability to manage wildlife. With license exemptions, non-marketable hunting permits, DMAPs, and even damage control permits, landowners or their agents gain value from wildlife through hunting opportunities. Marketable landowner permits and conservation-oriented property tax incentives offer a way for landowners to economically benefit from maintaining wildlife habitat. Public hunting access programs often provide funding to landowners to open up their lands for hunting, often providing incentives or even requirements to implement habitat conservation.
States often tailor the implementation details of these policies to their specific needs, showcasing the flexibility and adaptability of state-based approaches to wildlife management. As “laboratories of democracy,” states can learn from one another’s successes and challenges, ultimately driving innovation and improvement in wildlife conservation. We hope this effort will be valuable for wildlife managers, policymakers, and the public to learn about state wildlife policy at a broad scale to develop, adapt, and refine policy to improve recreation and conservation outcomes.