Leasing hunting rights can be a financial boon to Wisconsin timber owners

Several national companies focus on renting out Wisconsin forestland

A hunter waits for activity in a northern Wisconsin forest.

MIDDLETON, Wis. -- For the past two years, Steve Haines has been leasing the hunting rights to 100 acres of land he owns along the Trempealeau River on the Buffalo County border in western Wisconsin.

He works with Nebraska-based Hunting Lease Network (huntingleasenetwork.com), which a spokesman said coordinates between 20 and 30 leases with landowners in Wisconsin.

Haines declined to say exactly how much he receives for the use of his property. But he noted that it’s enough to pay his property taxes, which sits well with him.

“It’s also a great way to showcase my place to potential buyers,” added Haines, who is 62 and hoping to retire in several years from the dairying and farming. He milks 40 cows and has 50 acres in crops.

Most of the farm is bottomland, with some higher ground, too. Earlier this decade, he logged ash trees from his property, selling it mostly for pulp and railroad ties. Haines said he wanted to get the logging done before the county was added to the ash borer quarantine area, which occurred in September of 2012.

He also grazes cattle on his land, but removes them in September before the bow and gun deer-hunting seasons arrive.

“Cows and deer don’t seem to like to be on the same land,” he said. “I can tell that by what I see on my trail camera. When I pull the cows out, the deer come back.”

Haines said he is leasing the hunting rights to seven men from Milwaukee and Madison, who have use of his land for a year. They have set up several two campers to stay in, deer stands and have seen deer sign on visits this fall, he explained.

Haines said he “absolutely” would recommend the leasing program to other landowners. He said his cousin, who farms nearby, is considering leasing the hunting rights to his property.

“It’s a great way to raise some extra money and control who’s hunting on your land,” he said. “It’s really a win-win because even if you charge $500 for each of the seven guys, that’s a pretty cheap deal for a year of using my land. After all, what’s going to a Packers’ game going to cost you, a couple hundred bucks for three hours of entertainment?”

Hunters asked to help with deer causing damage to county forest

The Taylor County forestry department has issued 55 antlerless tags to harvest deer on a specific section of the county forest to help control damage to forest reproduction based on deer browse. The tags were announced in early November and were all issued by November 14.

The Forestry department reported that a locally high deer population is causing areas of the Taylor County Forest to suffer due to excessive browsing. The forestry department reported that “locally high deer population is causing extensive damage by eating seeds, seedlings and young trees” in the north central Wisconsin county.

The tags run to the end of the bow season (Jan. 5) and the goal is to harvest 25 deer. If that number of deer is reached before January 5, remaining tag holders will be called and notified that the tags are no longer valid.

Joe Peterselli, who lives in Eagle River and is Hunting Lease Network’s representative in Wisconsin, said his company is 16 years old and has more than 1,000 hunting leases with landowners around the country.

“A lot of farmers are having a rough go of it now and are looking for a way to bring in some more money,” he explained, noting that his company charges hunters between $10 and $25 an acre, depending on the location and type of land. Central and southern Wisconsin usually bring more per acre because it is closer to population centers of Milwaukee and Chicago.

“But Trempeauleau and Buffalo counties are popular, too, because they have a reputation for producing some large deer,” he said.

Peterselli said each lease though his company comes with a $2 million insurance policy covering liability for landowners. In addition, he said, they can impose restrictions on use of their land.

“The owners might not want to hunt deer, but keep the pheasant and duck hunting for themselves,” he said.

“It’s the landowners’ property and we don’t want to interfere with farming or logging,” he said. “But if you have a woodlot, we need to know if you plan to do any logging during the terms of the lease. Or if you are a farmer, when you’re planning to take out a hedge row or cut trees.”

Nathan Mrnak, who represents Basecamp Leasing (basecampleasing.com), said his company put 1,000 hunters on lands in Wisconsin where they’d leased hunting rights last year.

“We take care of everything between the hunters and the landowner,” he said. “And that includes a $5 million insurance policy.”

He declined to reveal how many landowners are working with his company for competitive reasons, but he said they typically receive between $15 and $30 an acre for leasing the hunting rights.

He stressed that communication between all the parties is important and that timber owners need to be transparent about logging schedules.

“Leasing is a way to control who is on your land,” he said. “And it benefits hunters because it means they will have the land to themselves.”

R.J. Wickham, who is the tax law section chief for the state Department of Natural Resources, said timber owners who have property in the Managed Forest Law (MFL) - Open lands must allow hunters, fishermen, hikers and others on their property.

By participating in the MFL program (https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/ForestLandowners/openLands.html), which encourages sustainable forestry management on private lands, timber owners can receive a significant tax break. How much depends on when the land was enrolled.

But if timber owners want to close their land to hunters and other members of the public, that means the tax break will be reduced. Currently, he said, there are 3,373,522 acres in the MFL program with less than a third of that (1,029,135) acres open to public access (find lands open to the public for recreational purposes here).

Wickham said some forest owners enrolled in the MFL program have opted to close their land and lease the hunting rights as a way to manage access and make up the loss in tax benefits compared to the rate they’d pay if the land were open. Allowing hunting - either on open or closed lands - also can reduce pressure from deer that are eating tree seedlings, he noted.

Brian E. Clark is a contributor to Forest Business Network. He formerly was a business writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune and also wrote for newspapers in Washington State. He's also a regular contributor to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Los Angeles Times.

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