The National Deer Association released its annual report on the state of deer hunting in America this week, and one of the most interesting data points the NDA revealed is that 88 percent of whitetails killed in the Midwest, South, and Northeast are taken on private land.
That means that on average, almost 9 out of every 10 deer harvested are taken by private-land hunters. Regionally, 81 percent of the Northeast harvest, 91 percent of the Midwest harvest, and 93 percent of the Southeast harvest occurred on private land, according to the report. Perhaps not surprisingly, Texas leads the country with 99 percent of its deer harvests taking place on private land.
To obtain this data, the NDA asked each state wildlife agency for a breakdown of private land versus public land deer harvests. Twenty-seven of 37 states in the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast collect this information, but no Western states track harvests by land ownership, according to the report. As a result, Western states were not included in this specific survey. If they had been, the percentages would have almost certainly come down a bit.
Even so, as I’ve written before, the vast majority of America’s hunters live and hunt in the eastern half of the country. The obvious takeaway here is that whitetail deer hunting—which is the most important hunting pursuit in America—is largely a private-land game.
“This is not to diminish the importance of public hunting land,” NDA chief conservation officer Kip Adams said in a release. “We need to acquire more public hunting land in the East, and we need to better manage the habitat on existing public land. But for hunter recruitment, herd management, and all the ways we want to protect and improve deer hunting, we need to understand most of those opportunities will be on privately owned acres.”
I think most of us who deer hunt in these regions already knew the most successful hunting happens on private ground, but I’ll admit that I didn’t know the numbers were quite so skewed. I do a lot of hunting in Wisconsin, which has more than 7 million acres of public land, and yet 87 percent of the harvest in 2021 was taken on private land, according to the NDA report. That’s shocking to me, even though I contributed to that 87 percent by harvesting a deer on private land during the 2021 season—and every season before it since I was 12.
Private vs. Public Land Deer Harvest State Breakdown
What It Means for Deer Hunting in America
With those numbers staring us in the face, it’s even more clear to me now that we need to shift how we think and talk about deer hunting and management within our hunting community. Here’s where I think we should start.
We Need to Improve Public Access on Private Ground
It’s unreasonable to expect states to grow their public lands. The best we can hope for is that they keep and maintain what they already have. But deer hunters should push their states to support programs that offer public hunting access on private ground. Such programs are already popular in the West—like Montana’s Block Management Program or Colorado’s Walk-in Access program—but every Midwest state also has a similar program.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the Northeast. Only three of 13 states surveyed in the NDA report offer a formal access program. This is a large decline from 2014 when six of 12 states surveyed had access programs, according to the NDA. Access to private lands in the Southeast is slowly improving with four of 11 states surveyed offering formalized programs in 2022.
But these private land access programs need to be continually funded. Here’s how it works: Private landowners voluntarily offer access to their lands for public hunting. In return, they receive a payment from the state. Most states receive funding for these access programs through grants given by the USDA’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which is powered by Farm Bill dollars. If those dollars dry up, the programs diminish or go away.
Some critter groups like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever lobby hard for habitat and access funding every time a new Farm Bill comes to Congress (and they often have good results). Maybe it’s time for the deer hunters and state agencies of the Southeast and Northeast to get in on the action, too.
We Need to Be Realistic When Recruiting New Deer Hunters
Both Outdoor Life and the NDA (and many other organizations in the hunting world) have been promoting the effort to recruit new hunters in recent years. But in these three regions of whitetail country, where exactly should we recruit new hunters to?
Yes, there are public-land hunting opportunities in every state, but as the NDA report shows, those opportunities aren’t always fruitful. I think hunter mentors (myself included) need to be more realistic about where these new folks are going to hunt long-term. An invite for one day of shooting does on a private lease is great, but where are they going to hunt next season?
If the R3 movement is going to be successful in the long run, we’re going to need better answers to that question.
We Need a Door-Knocking Revival
I think that hunters of my generation (age 20 to 40) can get a lot better at the art of knocking on a farmer’s door to ask for hunting permission. I realize this isn’t the answer in every region. In areas where outfitters or affluent hunters are leasing expensive ground, most landowners aren’t going to let you deer hunt for free just because you seem like a nice person.
But I’ve done a lot of deer hunting in the Upper Midwest and Northeast where it’s still possible to secure hunting permission with a handshake or a nominal fee (more on this in a moment). You just have to get out there and try it. You also have to be realistic. You might have to knock on 20 doors before you get a “yes.” And you’re probably not going to lock down 400 prime acres, but you just might be able to get on the 80 acres of your dreams.
On the upside, with modern mapping apps we’ve got the technology to identify property boundaries and property owners with incredible ease. It’s time to get out there and start knocking.
We Need to Be OK With Paying for Access
Then there’s Texas, where if you want to hunt deer, you’re probably going to have to pay it.
There are a lot of folks who believe a pay-to-play model will be the end of hunting in America as we know it, and there’s a lot of validity to that perspective. But on the flip side, deer hunting is booming in Texas. Just breeze through the NDA report and you’ll see that there are a ton of Texas hunters, they kill more antlered deer than any other state, and they have the third highest percentage of mature bucks in their overall harvest (72 percent).
There are plenty of relatively affordable deer hunting opportunities in Texas (no, it’s not all high-fence trophy hunts). And I think the same can be said for most of whitetail country. A few years ago I stumbled into an incredibly affordable lease opportunity in western Wisconsin not more than 100 miles from Buffalo County, one of the most renowned and competitive deer hunting counties in the country.
I know I’m not the only one. Savvy hunters from Pennsylvania to Louisiana are already taking advantage of these opportunities whether it be through leasing, hunting clubs, or going in with buddies to buy small parcels. We’ve got to start celebrating and promoting that kind of affordable hunting access just as vigorously as we advocate for our public lands. After all, the private ground is where most of the deer are getting tagged.