Expanding opportunities for southern Michigan hunters

Man and daughter returning from a successful hunt on a mid-Michigan Hunting Access Program farm.

Dec. 20, 2012

Michigan's Hunting Access Program (HAP) - a long-time Department of Natural Resources offering that provides hunters with more places to hunt - had been slipping into oblivion in recent years, but seems to have found a new lease on life. In fact, the latest news is pretty encouraging.

HAP, which began in the late 1970s as a way to give hunters access to private property in southern Michigan, at one time boasted more than 790 farms totaling 188,000 acres. In 2011, HAP included just 45 farms offering some 7,400 acres. Returning from a successful hunt on a participating mid-Michigan Hunting Access Program farm. Note the yellow "Safety Zone" sign in the background, clearly depicting the boundary of the HAP hunting area. (Image on the right.)

A year later, however, after the DNR decided to reinvigorate the program, HAP includes more than 150 farms that encompass 17,032-plus acres - and all of it accessible to Michigan hunters.

Hunting Access Program sign."I could hardly keep up with it," said Mike Parker, a DNR wildlife biologist who works in the private lands program and oversees HAP. "I was overwhelmed, but it was also a really good problem to have."

HAP began in 1977 when Michigan United Conservation Clubs lobbied the Legislature to create a "public access to private land" program. The Legislature responded by passing a law that required every hunter who lived in southern Michigan to purchase a Public Access Stamp, with the money earmarked to lease private farmland for hunters.

Although the Legislature soon changed the program - dropping the stamp requirement and funding it, instead, with a portion of the money raised from the sale of hunting licenses to southern Michigan hunters - the concept took off, peaking in 1982. But it soon went into long-term decline as the idea of leasing land caught on with the hunting public and hunters were often willing to "outbid" the DNR for access rights.

The program rocked along, losing ground, as hunter numbers decreased. Former DNR Director Becky Humphries formed the Hunter Retention and Recruitment Work Group to address decreasing hunter numbers. When the group identified a lack of access to hunting land as a prime cause for decreasing license sales, revisiting the HAP program seemed like a no-brainer.

Although DNR budgets were tight, a provision in the 2007 federal Farm Bill created a program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help fund state efforts to provide more hunting access. The DNR applied for a Voluntary Public Access Grant and was awarded $900,000 for three years to expand HAP.

The DNR's Parker - who at the time was working as a regional biologist with Pheasants Forever - was part of the recruitment and retention work group and helped the DNR write the grant. Soon after, he was hired to coordinate the HAP program. Parker immediately identified one of the key road blocks: payments to landowners were too low.

"We were not paying competitive lease rates," Parker said. "The rates we were paying had not been increased since 1996, and they probably were not competitive in 1996. We are paying competitive lease rates now."

Greater flexibility for landowners

In addition, the DNR changed the types of hunting rights it was leasing. In the past, landowners were required to allow all types of hunting on the property. Now, property owners can determine the types of hunting rights they wish to lease.

"We increased the flexibility for landowners," Parker explained. "We gave them options to choose from. They could lease us rights to all hunting, youth or apprentice only, small game only, deer only or turkey only. This increased flexibility was very well received by landowners and really helped us add farms that we would not have enrolled otherwise."

The highest rates are paid to those landowners who lease all rights, and payment rates decrease as access becomes more restricted. All-hunting leases are the most popular option among landowners.

"The majority of our farms are all-hunting, though lately we've been picking up quite a few youth and apprentice farms," Parker said.

Parker noted there are also some small-game-only farms, but the bulk are all-hunting. Some landowners who have chosen small game or turkey limit the lease rights because they want to reserve deer hunting for friends and family members who like to hunt their property.

"I thought it would be the opposite - that people would want to lease out the deer-hunting rights so they could still hunt small game, and we would help pick up the tab for the damage the deer cause," Parker explained. "But it hasn't happened that way."

Now that the bulk of Michigan deer season has passed, HAP properties will appeal mostly to late-season small game hunters pursuing rabbits, squirrels and Canada geese - though archery deer hunters and late-season antlerless deer hunters have until Jan. 1 to participate. Pheasant season runs through Jan. 1 in much of southern Michigan, too.

Better opportunities for hunters

Access to HAP farms is available in two ways. At most, there is a self-service box at the farm for hunters to register. Other farmers require a mandatory check-in where hunters actually knock on the door and get direct permission from the landowner, Parker said.

"Something we've tried to do is make the program more hunter-friendly," he continued. "Our new website lists all the farms in the program and they're all listed in Mi-HUNT, which includes aerial photos of the properties," he said. "So a hunter can sit at home in his living room and scout the property and devise a strategy of how he might want to hunt it. I think those aerial photos will really help hunters."

Parker said he had focused on signing up farms for HAP that were already enrolled in other Farm Bill programs - such as the Conservation Reserve Program - to help ensure the land supports game animals.

"The benefit to that is we're getting high-quality wildlife habitat," he said. "I'm thrilled with the quality of these new farms and the hunting opportunities they will provide.

"Response from hunters thus far has been very positive and I've heard multiple great success stories, including a young girl who harvested a dandy 9-point buck with her bow," Parker added. "For me, providing opportunities like this that allow hunters to enjoy the outdoors and help maintain our hunting heritage is what the program is all about."

Parker said he plans to conduct extensive surveys of both landowners and hunters after the season to get a sense for what worked, what didn't and what could be improved for the future. The Hunting Access Program has re-emerged as a worthwhile resource for hunters in southern Michigan, and the DNR is working to keep it that way.

To learn more about the Hunting Access Program, visit www.michigan.gov/hap. To explore hunting opportunities and land resources available through the DNR, visit www.michigan.gov/hunting or www.michigan.gov/mihunt.