written by: Gregory Thompson
Establishing and Maintaining Good Relations with Landowners, their Neighbors …and their Dogs.
A great deal of North America, in the regions where the majority of the human population resides, is privately owned. Biologists tell us that private lands and waters are important, not just in terms of the roles they play in species and habitat biodiversity and the provision of fresh water and other ecological goods and services, but also in terms of wildlife abundance. So it should be no surprise to learn that rural private lands and waters can play a key role in your wildlife harvesting activities. This is particularly the case in the highly-altered agricultural landscapes of central and southern North America where public lands and waters to hunt, trap and fish may be in limited supply.
However, in order to gain permission to use these places, and maintain that access over time, you need to be both adept at landowner relations and prepared to deal with the challenges. This article explains the “how-to” of securing permission on private lands and maintaining good landowner relations, including with neighboring property owners and their dogs.
Newcomers and experienced hunters and fishermen alike often ask me the same question, “Where can I go hunting and fishing?” Although I do not have a trappers’ licence I have spoken to many wild fur trappers across the country. Like hunters and fishermen, they face the very same challenge. It is clear to me from these conversations that finding accessible places to hunt, fish and trap is a big challenge for newcomers and experienced practitioners alike. So imagine for a moment having exclusive access to literally hundreds of acres of prime wildlife and fish habitat. Of course those who can afford it may choose to purchase their own wildlife paradise. Unfortunately most of us can only dream of owning property to hunt, fish or trap.
Fortunately there is a solution to this problem, one that newcomers and dedicated participants alike often fail to appreciate. In fact, your pursuit of hunting, fishing or trapping activities is not only within your reach, it is literally under your nose and accessible at a fraction of the cost of purchasing private lands and waters!
I am talking about accessing private lands and waters with the permission and invitation of landowners, lands and waters that support abundant populations of wild turkeys, migrating waterfowl, coyotes and other wild furbearers, bass and other gamefish species, as well as big game such as deer and bear. As a newcomer to hunting, trapping and fishing, or as dedicated participant, you owe it to yourself to check out the potential of private lands and waters in the pursuit of your favourite wildlife harvesting activity.
Courtesy and Reciprocity are Key
Many of us who hunt, fish or trap on private lands and waters have long-ago seen the value of these places. We cherish our continued access to these places, and accordingly pay a lot of attention to ensuring good landowner relations. There is a great deal that can be learned from these experiences and shared with others looking to share in this bounty.
I have been hunting and fishing now for over 50 years. Much of my success has been due to the good graces of landowners kindly giving me permission to access their property. As the seasons pass I have got to know many landowners and their families. They are generous and hardworking people who value respect, honesty and friendship. Knocking on landowner front doors can be intimidating, as you run the risk of failing to access that prime piece of wildlife habitat. But regardless of the outcome the landowners will thank you for requesting their permission. They may even have some suggestions as to other landowners who may give you permission. Knowing the difficulties landowners tell me that they regularly have with trespassers, including property damage, littering and poaching, it is not difficult to understand why common courtesy can go a long way in building enduring relationships with landowners. Having been a rural property owner myself I can fully sympathise with the trespass problems that these landowners face. Remember that you cannot enter private lands without the landowner’s permission. Trespassing is illegal.
In addition to simply knocking on doors and respecting the conditions of your access, it is equally important to pay attention to the other details that go along with maintaining good landowner relations. These simple things include: thanking the landowner for their permission and their local wildlife knowledge; sharing prepared wild game with the host and their family; offers of assistance and labor; and, regular updates on your harvesting. In the process of building enduring relationships with landowners, you will very quickly make new friendships. You will also find opportunities to reciprocate the generosity of your hosts. Recently, for example, I have taken on the responsibility of mentoring two young hunters, sons of a landowner who has graciously given me permission to hunt geese and wild turkeys on his property. Sharing the bounty of the wildlife harvest, with prepared game dishes, is also very much appreciated by landowners. My wife’s turkey pot pie, for example, continues to be a real favourite on the farms of eastern Ontario.
Getting it Very Right
As hunters, trappers and fishermen you owe it to the landowner to take all the necessary steps to ensure that your access to our host’s property is responsible and considerate. For instance, in the midst of a busy fall harvest, nothing could be worse than for the landowner to discover that your vehicle is blocking their access to their crop. Moreover, parking a massive harvester on the concession road, while the landowner searches for your cell phone number, risks both serious personal injury and damage to equipment. If this happens, or for that matter any other serious lack of consideration on your part, you will no longer be welcome on that property. Know also that your reputation as an unwelcome guest will most-certainly precede your search for new opportunities on the surrounding farms.
On the other hand, by maintaining good landowner relations, you increase the likelihood that the landowner will respect their commitment to you. Provided that they remain satisfied with your courteous and respectful behaviour, your host will likely deny others permission to access their property to hunt, fish or trap. An important benefit of this exclusive access is greater hunter safety. But don’t ever assume that permission granted to you a year ago is permission for eternity. As a guest you have a responsibility to maintain the relationship with your host landowner throughout the year, not just during the annual hunting, fishing or trapping seasons.
Anticipating the Challenges
Hunter and trapper training courses place considerable emphasis on the importance of securing permission on private lands and on maintaining good landowner relations. So all of the above will be familiar to most readers. However, what my five decades of hunting and fishing has taught me, is that your preparations and investment in good landowner relations may not entirely guarantee your success and enjoyment in pursuit of furbearers, wild game of fish on private lands.
Here is why. Not everyone is supportive of hunting, trapping and fishing, or even understands that these activities require training, licencing and are highly regulated to ensure both public safety and modern wildlife management. Neighboring landowners, for example, may have experienced previous episodes of trespassing or even of wildlife poaching on their lands. Or perhaps they are simply opposed to the harvesting of wild animals, or have a strong dislike of firearms. Or perhaps they are animal-rights advocates.
I have had been confronted by anti-hunters who approached me in the field, been falsely accused of trespass and illegal parking, faced false accusations by a nearby homeowner that I was raining shot down on their house, and spent time meeting with provincial police on the roadside – all in the conduct of lawful hunting and fishing- related activities. Not only that, I have talked to many hunters, trappers and fishermen who have had similar and in some cases even more-dramatic experiences.
So, despite the fact that you are trapping, hunting or fishing entirely within the law and with the permission of a landowner, at some point you will find yourself accused by nearby landowners or others of trespassing, poaching or even dangerous use of firearms. Those opposed to your presence and activities may go so far as complain to local police or wildlife enforcement, or to confront you directly.
Making the Face Time Positive
Understand that face-to-face confrontations can escalate quickly, particularly as emotions run high and voices are raised. But by staying calm, by listening closely to what is being said, by having the facts and documentation at your fingertips, and knowing your rights as a hunter, trapper and fisherman, you can make all the difference in managing-down such encounters. While the immediate temptation is to get defensive and argumentative, believe me that is precisely the response that your accusers are seeking. Your angry defense will simply fuel their argument by providing additional evidence that, in their view, you are an unwelcome, unwanted and unsavoury person.
You do have options. Some jurisdictions in North America, such as the Province of Ontario, have legislation protecting the legitimate and licensed harvesting activities of trappers, hunters and fisherman from harassment and interference. However, resorting to the courts should not be your preferred option. Nor would resorting to the courts to seek redress under the law be the go-to-option that your host landowner would likely endorse in your dealings with their neighbors. After all, your hosts have to live with these neighbors long after you have departed.
Instead, remember that you are representing the wildlife and sustainable use tradition. You owe it to your hunting, trapping and fishing heritage to turn the conflict at hand into an amicable conversation, rather than escalating the argument. I believe it is critical that you approach these conflicts, when and if they happen, as conflicts that can be resolved. Your goal should be to resolve the concerns by providing reassurance that you a license and trained harvester there with the permission of the landowner. Take the further steps to share your business card, shake hands with your accuser, and invite them to call you if they have any more questions or concerns.
Understanding the Objectors
Decades of public polling has shown that the vast majority of the citizens in North America support hunting, fishing and trapping, provided that these activities are conducted in a safe, regulated and licenced manner, that the animals are harvested humanely and not wasted, and that the participants do not trespass or litter. It is most likely that your accuser falls into this majority. However most citizens, and likely also your accuser, know very little about hunting, fishing and trapping. And what they do know is often based on misinformation promulgated by anti-hunters, animal rights activists, or anti-gun advocates. While these activists will never be convinced of the legitimacy of your harvesting activities, they are a very small, though vocal, minority. In your conversation with your accusers you will figure out pretty quickly who is who. Keep in mind, as well, that the neighbors may have good reason to be disgruntled and opposed to your presence. Perhaps they are troubled by trespassers, their damage and litter. Perhaps they are tired of confronting those who somehow think that they have the right to hunt across the entire township regardless of who owns the land. You should listen to these complaints, empathise with the criticisms of scofflaws, and explain that you have permission. You should also explain that hunting, trapping and fishing requires training and licencing and is highly regulated to ensure public health and safety, the protection of private property and the maintenance of abundance and healthy wildlife populations.
Ten Steps to Success
Here is a summary of the preparations you will need to follow in order to maintain good relations with landowners and their neighbours, and deal with the inevitable objections to your lawful hunting, trapping or fishing activities:
- Getting Informed on Permission. The first impression you make can be very important, so always be presentable and professional. When seeking permission, make sure that you have a business card to share with the landowner, as well as a pen and paper to note the landowners name and phone. In your conversation, make sure that the landowner is able to identify your vehicle and that the conditions of your permission are well understood. Such conditions may include: livestock pastures to avoid, access points, vehicle use on crop fields, use of retrievers and other dogs, construction of hunting blinds, and disposal of game and fish entrails. These conditions, along with your permission, need to be confirmed each year before the hunting, trapping or fishing seasons get underway. A field diary can make it easier to organize landowner contact information, draw rough maps, and make notes on access.
- Follow Up. In instances where permission is not immediately available you should inquire if the landowner would mind you dropping back at a later date. Also it is worth asking if they have any suggestions of nearby properties where you could also inquire about possible permission. These strategies have helped me put additional fish and game in the freezer.
- Know Your Jurisdiction, Municipal and Landowner Boundaries. Provincial, territorial, state and local regulations determine the zones where hunting, trapping and fishing are permitted. Get to know these regulations and follow them. If you are hunting inside municipal boundaries, firearms discharge by-laws may apply. Make sure you have the firearms discharge by-law maps with you. It is important to also make sure that you are familiar with the boundaries of the private land where you do have permission. Arranging with the landowner to take you on a brief orientation tour of their property will ensure that you know the boundaries and field access points. Not only will detailed knowledge of the property help ensure that you are not inadvertently trespassing on neighboring properties, it will also assist you in your harvesting activities. Nothing could be worse when attempting in the dark to set up for an early morning goose hunt, for example, than to have to search along the drainage ditches for the access point to the corn field.
- Have the Facts. Make sure you have a cell phone handy along with the name and phone number of the landowner whose land you are using. Also, having a topographical map, or a GPS, can be really handy in locating your position and the property you have permission on. Nothing deflates a false accusation of trespassing quicker than being able to confirm your permission with the person doing the complaining and being able to pinpoint your exact location on the property you are using.
- Meet the Neighbours. If you can, arrange for your host to provide you with the names and phone numbers of the surrounding landowners. It is worth calling these individuals to introduce yourself and explain who you are, the type of vehicle you are driving, and your harvesting activities. This may reduce the potential for conflict. Knowing, for example, that you are harvesting wildlife might prompt the neighbor to better-manage their incursions and those of their dogs onto your host’s property. You may even want to ask for permission to harvest wildlife on their adjoining lands. But even if the neighbor does not give you permission to hunt, it is very important that you request permission from the neighbor to retrieve any downed game that happens to end up on their property. While you have a legal obligation to dispatch and retrieve game, this does not mean you have the legal right to trespass.
- Be a Joiner. Join your provincial or state fish and wildlife and trapping associations. These organizations offer liability insurance to their members. Liability insurance is a normal business practice for trappers, but is also important for those who hunt and fish, particularly on private lands. Being insured will make you a more-attractive guest in the eyes of most landowners.
- Get it in Writing. Written permission to use private lands may be a requirement in your jurisdiction, as is the case for most wild fur trapping. So don’t forget to obtain the landowners signature and make sure you have a copy of the written permission document with you when you are in the field.
- Cooperate with Enforcement. In all encounters with police and wildlife enforcement, make sure your firearms are unloaded and set aside with the actions open. Answer the Officer’s questions directly and focus on the facts. It has been my experience that while local police have limited knowledge of wildlife harvest and safety regulations, any nearby firearms discharge complaint, however unfounded, will guarantee their full attention and prompt action. Having a summary copy of the wildlife regulations handy, along with all of your hunting and other permits, will help inform all parties. No one wants to spend time handcuffed in the back of a cruiser due to a lack of knowledge on the part of the local police force, as happened to a duck hunter I recently interviewed.
- Be Sensible and Follow the Rules. Of course it goes without saying that you need to follow all the rules and regulations respecting your hunting, trapping or fishing activities. Using common sense helps also. This includes: respecting trespass laws, fish and game seasons and limits, shooting only in safe directions, using approved traps and trapping systems, ensuring all firearms are encased after legal shooting times, not littering, parking your vehicle in agreed locations, not stomping around in unharvested crop fields, closing all gates, and discarding all fish and animal waste in the appropriate manner.
- Watch your Communications. Finally, while we all like to share our success stories and photos with others, remember to respect the privacy of landowners in any social media or other post-adventure communications you may undertake. Sometimes saying less is more effective, in communicating the true spirit of our hunting, fishing and trapping heritage, than boasting about bagging the big one.
Does Your Dog Bite?
As the introduction to this article suggests, there is also the matter of landowner-owned dogs to consider. Farm dogs come in all shapes, sizes and, unfortunately, moods. Besides protecting and herding livestock, their main job is to protect the farm family and property, a responsibility they all take very, very seriously. Mostly you can bluff your way through these Fido encounters when seeking permission and reach the farmhouse door in one piece. Buy if you misjudge the dog’s intentions, as I have on more than one occasion, your blood could as easily be spilled as has mine. Accordingly, you should treat all aggressive dogs with considerable caution, at least until the landowner rescues you from your vehicle and supervises a proper introduction. Don’t forget the dog’s name for your next visit and pretty soon the dog will be treating you as a member of the family. But even then, I always keep my retriever in the truck until I am well into the field and far from the farm yard. A dog fight is to be avoided at all costs!
Representing your Heritage
As a hunter, trapper or fisherman, you represent this heritage every time you knock on a rural landowner’s front door or speak to nearby residents. Becoming adept at establishing and maintaining good landowner relations, by doing your homework and behaving in a courteous and responsible fashion, are essential. To ensure your success in accessing private lands and waters make sure you pay attention not only to your relationship with your host, but also to your host’s neighbors, as well as the dogs.
My own success, and that of many others, in accessing private lands to hunt, fish and trap have proven the effectiveness of the preparations described in this article. Admittedly this will take some effort and investment on your part. However, once all your preparations are in place, you will have access to high-quality hunting, fishing and trapping areas at a fraction of the cost of owning rural property. Not only that, but think of all the wonderful people you will meet, the lasting friendships you will make, and the delicious wild game and fish your family and new-found friends will be able to enjoy around your dining-room table!
Have a safe and successful fall season hunting, trapping or fishing and don’t forget to thank the landowners for making it all possible!