Homeland Spring 2017: Finding a fit with outfitters | TSLN.com

Homeland Spring 2017: Finding a fit with outfitters

5 considerations when leasing out land for hunting

by Tamara Choat

easing to an outfitter can provide the best of game management, land stewardship and outside income for landowners.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is the value of land use. Although traditionally ranches and farms are purchased based on their potential agricultural production, an inherent side value of many places is wildlife habitat. Current landowners and potential purchasers should recognize the value of hunting on their property, and decide if they want to capitalize on this asset. Some options include personal use, public hunting, personal acquaintance access, or leasing to an outfitter.

With the hunting guides and outfitters industry being shaped into a highly regulated, professional and licensed business over the past 50 years, outfitter leasing is becoming an option of choice for many landowners.

Three licensed outfitters in the states of Montana and Wyoming discuss factors and benefits landowners should consider in a lease agreement. Craig Schell owns Double D Outfitters in Terry, Mont., and guides deer and antelope hunts across eastern Montana. Matt Cunningham is the owner of Buckboard Outfitters in Emigrant, Mont., and operates hunts also in eastern Montana. Jimmie Owens outfits for deer, antelope and elk with Lost Creek Outfitters out of Casper, Wyoming.

  1. Quality relationships

Most outfitters will say that for a landowner, finding an outfitter interested in leasing their place is not difficult. Prime wildlife habitat is in high demand. However, finding the right fit with the right outfitter is what matters.

"As a landowner, the first thing is you want people who are responsible. No one wants gates left open, driving around while it's muddy," says Owens. "Most of the time I start with a phone call or a meeting, and then we go from there."

Developing a mutual relationship of respect and benefit is vital to the process. Like hiring any employee or vendor, landowners should do their research and request references. Professional associations like the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association or the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association provide useful frameworks for finding licensed outfitters and references.

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Outfitters say they are usually interested in talking to landowners, and may initiate contact and ask to come and survey the place. From there the conversation will proceed based on the landowners' interest and the potential outfitter's evaluation of the property.

  1. Wildlife management

One of the key benefits of working with an outfitter is planned wildlife management. Any good outfitter will recognize that to maintain a useful lease property, they can't harvest all the trophies in one year and will work to maintain a sustainable population.

"I personally have a plan of how many bucks I want to take off of so many acres," says Schell. "If you have a piece of ground you figure has six to seven mature bucks on it, you don't to shoot them all, 'cause then you don't have anything to shoot the next year."

Owens, whose primary job is a rancher, says, "When we graze cattle we leave 50 percent of our grass behind; if we don't leave some, we might not have it for next year." He uses that same principle when harvesting wildlife. "We know what our resource is [in terms of game numbers] and we don't take it all away in one year."

Most outfitters will agree that managed trophy hunting maintains a more stable and balanced population that improves the overall wildlife landscape, especially compared to open public hunting, where most hunters know if they don't take an animal, someone else will.

"An outfitter who manages game well grows the trophy population and maintains an overall healthy population and therefore adds value to land," says Cunningham.

One concern that may need to be managed with trophy hunting is the male versus female ratio. Most paid hunters are looking for males, and are not as likely to harvest females. Schell says that's a concern he works with a landowner to manage. "Sometimes a place will start to get a high population of does – some landowners, especially farmers, that bothers," he says. "If they want to reduce numbers, I'll work with them to have their own family and friends out on certain days to shoot does, to help control the population. There's always ways to work through it to manage the wildlife to the best interest of everyone."

  1. Privacy and stewardship

Hunting can be both a traditional survival skill and an elite sportsman's hobby. Critics may say outfitting caters to "wealthy, out-of-state hunters" at the expense of the local public. However, most landowners who work with outfitters say the biggest reason they chose to lease out has nothing to do with income or excluding the public – it's simply to maintain their privacy and avoid becoming a "playground monitor." Hunting access is highly sought-after, and as with any desired resource, it can be subject to abuse.

Schell says a lot of what he sees is that "once the word's out [that a rancher has leased a place], the phone calls quit and people knocking on their door an hour before daylight opening day stops."

Schell adds a lot of outfitters come from an agricultural background, and can serve as a knowledgeable observer of ranch operations. "If I see a sick calf I tell the landowners, or if they gathered a certain pasture I can let them know if they've missed a few pairs. They appreciate having someone out there, especially if they have a lot of land."

It comes down to stewardship and a shared respect for the business and the land.

"It's accountability; the right outfitter can help you care for and improve your way of life," says Schell. "Some of the landowners I work with could make more money in Block Management (reimbursement for public access to hunting through the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks) than what I pay, but one of the advantages is they know who's on their land and they know it's being taken care of. We won't be out there driving around when it's muddy and leaving gates open."

  1. Professional contracts

With any outfitting agreement, it is in both parties' best interests to have a formal, signed paper contract stating the exact terms of the agreement. "I believe everything is better if it is written down," says Owens.

One of the biggest aspects to iron out before hunting season starts is if anyone other than the outfitter and his hunters will be hunting, what they are allowed to take, and when they will be there. "Make sure that's stated up front so it's all in black and white before the season starts," says Cunningham.

Sample contracts can be found from various groups such as outfitters associations, Farm Bureau or Extension. Despite where the starting point is, both landowners and outfitters can rely on a final contract as a useful tool to outline and assist with expectations.

  1. Income

Although for most landowners, income is not the primary motivator for working with an outfitter, it never hurts. "Every rancher likes income," says Owens. Many landowners use the payments to offset taxes or other overhead costs of owning property.

Leasing payment agreements are unique to each ranch and each outfitter. Some charge per day, some per animal taken, some per hunter, and some per acre. "The values of each of those vary and are negotiated between the outfitter and the owner," says Cunningham. "The ranch I operate on is priced using a mixture of all of the above. I figured out how many hunters I could take over the season based on the size of the ranch and the number of trophy quality animals. And then I made a lease offer based on what I could afford using a business model."

Schell says a lot of pricing goes back to quality and how much wildlife is on a piece of property. Owens says by July most outfitters have their agreements made and contracts in place. He says some contracts will allow for half of the landowner payment to be made at that time, and the balance after the season is over.

In Eastern Montana, most mule deer hunts are priced (to the hunter) in the range of $3,500 to $5,000. Some outfitters say in general one-fourth to one-third of that cost will go back to the landowner. Again, each contract and payment agreement is unique, but both outfitters and landowners realize a mutually beneficial agreement is the key to a long-term relationship.