Landowners’ Guide to Lease Hunting in Missouri

Robert A. Pierce II
Associate Professor, Fisheries and Wildlife Extension
Ryan Milhollin
State Specialist, Agricultural Business and Policy Extension

A buck standing in a forest clearing.Figure 1. A hunting lease provides an opportunity for a landowner to supplement their farm income and enhance wildlife habitat.

An increasing number of landowners in Missouri are interested in providing access for sportsmen and others to hunt, fish and enjoy other types of outdoor recreation on their property for a fee. This interest is in response to an increasing demand for access to private property for a quality recreational experience.

Wildlife recreation is big business. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Associated Recreation, more than 103 million residents of the United States 16 and older participated in wildlife-related recreation. During that year, 35.8 million people fished, 11.5 million hunted, and 86.0 million participated in at least one type of wildlife-watching activity in the United States. Approximately $157 billion was spent on wildlife-related activities during that year. Land leasing and ownership for hunting represents a significant expenditure as hunters spent $2.9 billion to lease and own property for hunting.

The economic impact of wildlife-related recreation is especially important in Missouri, where annual spending for hunting is approximately $1 billion. This value does not include the dollars spent for other types of outdoor recreation, including fishing and wildlife watching. A large percentage of wildlife recreation activity occurs on private land as about 93 percent of the land base in Missouri is privately owned. Most of the opportunities to hunt as well as the quantity and quality of wildlife habitat depend on the attitudes and management practices conducted by private landowners. White-tailed deer, wild turkey, bobwhite quail, cottontail rabbits, mourning doves and other game species are dependent on the habitats and the management decisions made by private landowners.

Although some form of lease hunting has occurred in the state for many years (particularly on farms managing for waterfowl), charging a fee to access wildlife recreational opportunities has not been part of the hunting or land management tradition in Missouri as it has in other areas of the country. This situation is changing throughout the Midwest as more landowners begin to realize opportunities for added income through recreational leasing. In fact, leasing land for hunting has contributed to the substantial increase in value of nonagricultural land in the state. For many landowners with this interest, developing a hunting lease enterprise may provide an opportunity to sustain their natural resource base, maintain their quality of life and increase annual profits from their property.

The information in this guide has been developed to help interested landowners make informed decisions about lease hunting as a potential income-generating opportunity. Many landowners are interested in managing wildlife on their property but cannot justify the expense unless a financial return is achieved. Hunters can provide this supplemental income and often can supply motivation, labor, equipment and materials. Depending on land management objectives, development of a hunting lease enterprise offers many landowners the opportunity to supplement their income while enhancing wildlife habitat on their property.

The hunting lease

Hunting leases are an example of the broader concept of a recreational lease — an agreement between a person who controls access to property and a person who wishes to use the property for recreation. The lease grants an individual the right to participate in a specified recreational activity on a specific tract of property for a certain time and fee.

A hunting lease is a contract between the landowner (lessor) and hunters (lessees) that provides access to your land to hunt game (and conduct other specified activities) for a specified period of time. Hunters usually pay you an agreed-upon dollar amount per acre or per hunter.

Generally, the hunting lease agreement does not convey rights to wildlife itself. Native wildlife cannot be leased or sold by a landowner because it is publicly owned by the state. In some situations, commercially raised game or exotic game species can be marketed to hunters through a “licensed shooting preserve.” However, the vast majority of game hunted on leased property is for native species, such as white-tailed deer, wild turkey and waterfowl.

The relationship between ownership and control of wildlife is a paradox in our society. The public owns the wildlife resource, but in many situations private landowners control access to the resource. Landowners own the right to use their property for many purposes, including the development and management of their property for wildlife habitat. The public cannot hunt or observe wildlife without also using the land. Recreational leases provide a system for the person that is managing property for wildlife habitat to get an economic return and the person accessing the land pay for it.

Hunting leases often provide additional profitable enterprises on land already managed for livestock, crops or timber. A certain amount of compromise is usually necessary as land management decisions are made to optimize income from both the hunting lease and other land uses. In some circumstances, the long-term net income from a hunting lease can exceed that derived from more conventional land uses alone.

The primary reason sportsmen lease land is to obtain a better recreational experience than they believe they can obtain elsewhere. Even though most Missourians are within a one-hour drive of a Missouri Department of Conservation area, a National Forest, a Federal wildlife refuge, or other public land in which hunting is allowed, many are willing to pay for exclusive access to hunt on private property. Examples of what sportsmen look for in a hunting lease include the following:

  • Less — or no — competition from other hunters
  • The perception of more abundant game
  • The ability to manage and influence game populations
  • An atmosphere in which they feel welcome
  • An environment that is perceived to be safer (due to landowner control over the number or distribution of hunters)
  • Convenience or locations close to home
  • The perception of the potential trophy qualities of game
  • Convenient, comfortable and dependable amenities such as the availability of meals, camping or lodging facilities

It is not necessary for each hunting lease enterprise to have any or all of these characteristics to be successful. However, the more attractive the property and the hunting experience, the more marketable and valuable will be the lease. Before deciding to lease, you will need to evaluate your property and other resources. Answering a few basic questions will allow you to assess whether your property is suited for a lease arrangement.

Do you have enough land for a hunting lease?

Hunting leases can be of any size and may range from 20 acres to several thousand acres in Missouri. Waterfowl and dove hunting leases tend to be smaller acreage, while quail and deer hunting leases tend to be larger acreage. For instance, several hundred acres may be necessary to properly manage for deer or turkey populations.

Sometimes several landowners with relatively small tracts of land will pool their land to form larger hunting leases. Landowner cooperatives are a method that allow a larger number of landowners with adjoining properties to work together for a common goal of enhancing their property for wildlife. Many of these cooperatives in Missouri are focused on improving habitats for white-tailed deer or wild turkey. Such lease cooperatives are more complicated and more difficult to manage than single-owner leases, but they allow landowners with small properties to obtain income through lease hunting. Large, more diverse land tracts can potentially attract higher lease prices, especially if the diversity of habitats is increased and managed.

Clear goals are critical to a successful land management system. Goals must be realistic and based on the capabilities of the land base and wildlife populations.

What are the game species on your property?

Most Missouri hunting leases emphasize hunting for white-tailed deer, wild turkey or waterfowl. Some leases emphasize other game species such as mourning doves, bobwhite quail or pheasants. If game populations are at a low level, then investments will need to be made to improve the habitat before hunters will be willing to lease access to the property for hunting.

Can you provide adequate game populations?

Wildlife habitat management should not be separated from other agricultural land management practices. If a landowner has wildlife goals for a property, then land management decisions should consider their impact on wildlife.

Almost all land uses and management practices affect game populations. Practices that have significant effects on game include removal of shrubby cover, planting of perennial grasses, tillage, choice of crops, crop harvest, growth and management of timber species, timber harvest, weed control, burning, haying, grazing, fertilization, choice of livestock forages and stocking rates, and maintenance of roads and fencing. These practices can have positive or negative effects on the plant community that game species depend on for food and cover resources. Information on enhancing wildlife habitats for a variety of species can be found in the Resources section.

Types of hunting leases

Hunting lease arrangements depend on the needs of the landowner and clientele. Each lease arrangement has differences regarding time, effort, games species hunted and investment. They can generally be grouped into three categories: annual leases, seasonal leases and short-term leases.

Annual lease

The most common lease arrangement in Missouri is an annual lease that covers all “in season” game species. This arrangement is popular with sportsmen and landowners who want to limit the time spent managing a lease. A properly designed annual lease can be managed with limited effort by a landowner. Most annual leases convey exclusive rights to specified recreational activities on the land during the year. If a landowner wishes to retain hunting privileges for personal/family use, it is usually best to withhold some property from the lease. Exceptions to this policy should be clearly stated in a written agreement.

Hunting clubs often prefer to lease on a long-term basis. This allows the opportunity to conduct wildlife habitat improvement practices, help maintain roads and fences and patrol the leased property to protect against trespassing. Annual leases should include an option for renewal upon expiration. Once desirable clientele is established, marketing and landowner involvement become minimal when compared with the other lease arrangements.

Limited-duration (seasonal) lease

The limited-duration lease may be for a particular hunting season or for a few weeks. Most seasonal leases convey exclusive rights to the specified recreational activities during the term of the agreement. A single limited-duration lease can be managed with limited effort when properly organized by a landowner. Seasonal leases can realize a higher profit than an annual lease, but these arrangements may require a greater investment from the landowner in the form of more time and marketing skills. These leases could be at different times each year for various species or be several leases occurring in the same season but at different times.

Seasonal leases are popular with landowners who have large game populations and desire to lease hunting rights separately for these species. For example, some landowners will lease deer hunting rights in the fall and turkey hunting rights in the spring. However, these types of leases may not be as attractive as an annual or long-term lease to potential lessees who desire a more long-term arrangement or to those interested in making habitat improvements.  In addition, care must be taken to avoid conflict between the seasonal tenants. The timing of certain activities overlap, such as food plot planting or controlled burns in the spring and spring turkey season.

Short-term lease

Short-term leases often involve daily, weekend or weeklong hunts, which are sometimes called day leases or “package” hunts. These types of arrangements are usually more successful near populated areas where the demand for hunting opportunities is high. Day-hunting leases typically present more demands on landowners’ time than annual or limited duration leases. For example, if deer stands are leased on a day-to-day basis, the landowner must retain adequate control over the movement of hunters. This may require bringing each hunter to and from an identified stand individually. Daily leases and “package” hunts are also common for hunting waterfowl, small game and doves.

“Package” hunts may be marketed and managed intensively. Some packages include guided hunts conducted either by the lessor or by outfitters that the landowner has contracted to broker hunting opportunities. Guided hunts for one or more days increase the time requirements for a landowner. Some very involved hunting leases become the primary enterprise for a few landowners. These leases may provide for lodging, meals, guides, transportation, hunting blinds, dogs and dog handlers, guns and ammunition, game dressing and cleaning, game butchering and packaging, cold storage, additional recreational facilities, refreshments after the hunt, pictures of the hunt, communications and guaranteed harvest opportunities. This type of operation may require intensive management of wildlife habitat, wildlife population inventories, wildlife harvest management and extensive advertising.

An example of a short-term lease is to work with a brokerage or outfitter (or other third party) that signs up property from landowners willing to provide access to hunters. The brokerage markets the property and schedules hunters (who pay the brokerage/club a fee to join) to hunt on a specified date or time.

Other business arrangements exist in which a landowner may interact with a third party to broker hunting access to a property. One example is the broker pays a landowner an amount per acre (usually a lower amount than could be obtained by other lease-hunting examples) and assume all management and marketing responsibilities with respective hunters.

Establishing a lease price

One of the most difficult decisions for many landowners is what fee to charge for a hunting lease. The landowner must find a price that will produce acceptable income yet remain acceptable to an adequate number of hunters (determining what the market will bear). The price will depend on a variety of factors:

  • Size and location of the property
  • Type of game
  • Quality of habitat and the hunting experience
  • Reputation of the operation
  • Number of people involved in the lease
  • Length of the lease and expectations of the landowner
  • Type of services, facilities and other amenities that the landowner provides

University of Missouri Extension conducts a survey (MU Extension publication G427, Cash Rental Rates in Missouri) periodically from Missouri landowners and farmers that asks for hunting lease rates. Table 1 presents a summary of the results collected in 2018. Most rates for annual and seasonal lease arrangements are assessed on a per-acre basis. The large range in rental rates indicates several factors affect the value of hunting rights.

Table 1. Missouri hunting leases in 2018.

 Species (number of responses)
Any wildlife (9)Deer only (3)Deer and turkey (16)Ducks and geese (3)
Rent per acre (annual)
Average$14.88$12.42$12.50$45.50
Range$0.28 to $44.81$6.25 to $20.00$0.40 to $50.00$24.00 to $62.50
Rent per hunter
Average$728.28$1,161.11$561.25$375.00
Range$11 to $2,204$250 to $2,500$25 to $1,583$200 to $625
Acres per lease
Average29217731042
Range75 to 1,04080 to 25040 to 95020 to 80

Leases with poor habitat quality tend to make the least amount of money, while good quality hunting/habitat can generate the highest prices. Property leased for waterfowl hunting tend to bring the highest price per acre, followed by quail, deer and turkey leases.

Many landowners determine their lease price based on what neighbors or others in the area are charging. However, that may not be an adequate method of valuing the hunting opportunity. Table 2 lists five methods that may help in determining the price to charge for a hunting lease.

Table 2. Methods of determining lease hunting prices.

MethodDescription
What neighbors or others are charging in the immediate areaLease price is based on the going rate in the area
Break-even plus 10 percent to 30 percentLease price is based on management and other costs plus 10 percent to 30 percent
ValuationLease price is based on a subjective evaluation of the quality and quantity of wildlife habitat on the property
Baseline plus value-addedIn addition to a base price per acre, fees are assessed on each improvement, amenity or service provided
Sealed bid approachA description of the hunting lease is published and offers are solicited

Landowners often get a higher price for the lease by managing their land for wildlife. The lease price can be based on management costs plus an arbitrary amount based on the value of each improvement made. Farmers can often implement habitat improvement practices through ongoing agricultural practices at a minimal cost. Other landowners without equipment may have to hire a wildlife management consultant or a contractor to implement management practices at a potentially higher cost. In addition, landowners can often realize a higher profit by managing a lease on either a seasonal or daily basis with opportunities for a larger clientele to have access to various wildlife species.

The terms of payment for a hunting lease are not always in cash. In some cases, leases are provided in return for services or other goods. A successful lease price is one that satisfies both parties.

Identifying quality lessees

A lessor (person that controls property access) should always carefully interview potential lessees before signing the lease agreement. This is an important facet of leasing hunting rights. Choosing the right lessees will help avoid potential problems in managing the lease. Remember, by entering into a hunting lease, you are giving up some rights as the landowner. You are giving a third party the contractual right to access your property and, in most cases, the right to bring guests onto the property and to exercise some control over your property. Do your due diligence before signing. When leasing to a group, designate one person to be the leader or primary contact. All members of the group should sign the lease agreement. Lessors might consider requiring lessees to prepare a harvesting report each year that summarizes their hunting success (or lack thereof), time spent on the property, wildlife management practices implemented and other items of potential interest.

Liability

Concerns over liability have increased as our society has become more litigious. Liability has prevented many landowners from entering into a lease agreement even though lawsuits against landowners in hunting-related accidents are uncommon.

However, a landowner’s liability does increase when property is leased. Under Missouri state law, all visitors other than trespassers are “entitled to reasonable care under the circumstances.” To lessees, landowners owe an even greater duty — the landowner has an affirmative duty to inspect the leased property and to either warn the lessees of any known danger or make the leased property safe.

Although negligence must be proven for a landowner to be held liable for personal loss or injury, exposure to liability can be reduced by maintaining safe premises. To minimize liability risk, a landowner should inspect a property for hazards. Lessees should be informed of hazards, including old and dilapidated deer stands, cables and barbed wire fences, sinkholes, abandoned wells and discarded farm implements; or the hazards should be removed before leasing the property. Give each person in the lease agreement a map of the property, show them your property boundaries and point out any possible hazards or dangerous situations that may exist. The most important and best liability insurance is the careful selection of lessees.

However, it is a good idea to require lessees to sign an agreement that releases you from any liability for actions taken by lessees while on the property. Any “liability waiver or release” should be drafted by an attorney to increase the likelihood that it will be upheld in court. Effective releases/waivers clearly state the dangers or risks the lessees may encounter on the leased premises, and that the lessee realizes and appreciates those dangers or risks. Here is an example of a liability waiver.

Although this agreement will not relieve you of liability associated with negligence, it does convey that the lessees have assumed the risks associated with hunting on your property.

Many landowners have liability insurance to protect themselves in case an accident occurs on their property. Review your existing policies to see if coverage is provided for hunting leases. If not, talk with your insurance representative about a hunting endorsement. Landowners should have adequate liability coverage but also a proper written lease agreement and monitor lessees’ actions on the property. Remember, the landowner is required to take all reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of the lessees.

A landowner can also require lessees to obtain liability insurance to cover themselves for actions taken while on your property. This policy should also contain an “additional insured” landowner option which provides the lessor (the landowner) with coverage should the lessee be named in a lawsuit filed against them. This coverage will protect both the landowner and lessees should either be found guilty of negligence. It should be stated in the written lease agreement that the hunters pay for this insurance. Be sure to contact your insurance agent or attorney if you have questions regarding liability issues.

Note: Like many other states, Missouri has a “recreational user” statute that relieves the landowner of any duty of care when the property is used for recreational purposes and no fee or other benefit is received by the landowner. The purpose of this law is to encourage landowners to open their property for public recreation. This law does not apply to lease hunting. When landowners accept a fee (or any other benefit) for hunting on their property, they take on legal responsibility for the safety of the hunters. The paying hunter becomes an “invitee” and Missouri law states that landowners have a “duty of ordinary and reasonable care” to their invitees. A landowner’s duty toward an invitee is to make a reasonable inspection of the premises and and either warn them of hidden dangers or eliminate the hidden dangers.

Develop a written lease agreement

The best way to ensure that the rights and privileges of both the lessor (landowner) and lessee (hunter) are documented is to have a signed agreement. Hunting leases should signed by both parties. The written agreement delineates the terms of the lease and helps protect the interests of both the landowner and the hunters. A lease agreement should include at least the following information:

  • Description of the recreational rights, services and facilities being leased
  • Names of lessors and lessees
  • Description of the property being leased (including legal descriptions and a map)
  • Species to be hunted
  • Terms of payment (i.e., rent and due dates)
  • Duration of the lease
  • Guest policy
  • Description of what improvements (if any) can be built, limits on what can be stored on the property and any restrictions on modifications (cutting of trees, removal of brush)
  • Any special rules and regulations concerning restrictions or responsibilities of either party
  • Signatures of all parties involved

Any special concerns of the landowner or hunters should be addressed in the lease. These may include references to abiding all state and federal hunting regulations, hunter personal liability insurance, shooting or trespassing across boundaries of the lease, location of hunting blinds/stands, collection of harvest data, game harvest quotas, use of alcoholic beverages, littering, subleasing recreational rights, guest privileges, camping location, responsibility to pay for damages, and ownership of any structures left on the property at end of the lease. It is suggested that a written lease agreement be reviewed by a lawyer.

Sample leasesThree sample agreements (PDF) have been developed for educational purposes only. It is important to seek advice from an attorney before writing or signing a binding legal agreement. If other services or rights are allowed to the lessee, then these provisions shoud be included.

Additional tips for success

Monitor wildlife populations

It is important to evaluate the wildlife potential of your property as decisions are made regarding the hunting lease. An inventory of the wildlife population and wildlife habitat on a property will help guide subsequent decisions about how to manage the lease and what habitat management may be necessary.

Maintaining accurate records of game harvested is an important aspect of hunting lease management. Accurate records are necessary to detect changes, measure progress, evaluate management success and predict future needs. Harvest records help to evaluate the potential value of a lease and provide a means of determining how many hunters a property can support. Good records also provide a tool for marketing.

The hunting lease agreement can require lessees to maintain records of harvest. Hunters are usually pleased to help if it is explained to them that it will be useful to improve their hunting experience. Useful information includes hours hunted for each species, date and location of each harvest, numbers of each species harvested and names of hunters involved with the harvest. For deer, additional records would include the sex of each animal, dressed or whole weight, age and antler measurements.

When existing or anticipated harvest rates cause undesirable population trends, it is prudent to establish harvest quotas. A harvest quota is the maximum number of a species that can be taken from an area in a certain time frame. Hunting can alter deer sex ratios, buck age structure and trophy quality of a deer herd. Harvest quotas often change from year to year as game populations and habitat change, particularly if habitat-enhancement practices increase the carrying capacity of the property for a particular species.

Information on evaluating wildlife habitat on your property as well as examples for capturing harvest information are provided in the Resources section.

Improve the habitat on your property

Your property must provide the right amount and quality of wildlife habitat each year. Active management is required to maintain areas to provide wildlife food and cover. Be sure to solicit management advice from experienced professional wildlife biologists who work with one of the public agencies (e.g., Missouri Department of Conservation) or are private wildlife consultants. You may want to ensure that the wildlife biologist you work with is certified by The Wildlife Society, a professional organization.

Marketing

Marketing is a critical part of the hunting lease process. It can mean the difference between leasing your land or not. Marketing involves identifying what the property has to offer, including the available species and amenities. Possible modes of advertising depend on the type of lease offered and the location of the property. Examples of promotion methods include social media, online websites, local/state publications, community bulletins, networking with local organizations, poster on your property or word of mouth. The most important advertisement is a satisfied customer.

Manage cost and returns

Because of the wide range of investments and returns in different lease hunting operations, a typical example does not exist. However, the majority of the hunting leases in Missouri are relatively simple. On property with quality habitats and pre-existing huntable game populations, properly managed leases generally require little investment. Costs may include additional insurance premiums and a small legal fee to review the lease agreement. They also require an investment of the landowner’s time to market and manage the lease agreement.

There are costs and compromises associated with maintaining or developing wildlife habitat. Habitat management costs will need to be considered as an annual expense for each lease. Many properties will not support significant populations of game without some consideration of the quantity and quality of habitat. For instance, this may mean reducing the acreage and production of certain agricultural crops to allow for the establishment of wildlife food and cover or focusing your woodland management efforts to include wildlife habitat.

There are also wildlife management practices that qualify for cost-share assistance through conservation programs offered through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) promote practices that can enhance the value of your property for wildlife. Several of these practices promote the establishment and management of field borders around crop fields, buffers, edge feathering, habitat planting and other activities that improve wildlife habitat. These practices can often be integrated into the ongoing management objectives of your property, usually without sacrificing economic returns.

Shooting preserves

Shooting preserves are privately owned areas, licensed by the state, on which pen-raised game can be harvested under different regulations (longer seasons and bigger bag limits) than apply in the wild. They may be classified as commercial operations or not-for-profit. In Missouri, hunting preserves are called licensed shooting areas (LSAs) and are registered with the Missouri Department of Conservation. There are about 50 in the state, most of which are game bird operations. Statutes and regulations relating to captive wildlife can be found in the Wildlife Code of Missouri, issued each year by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Summary

Hunting trends in Missouri and across the United States are toward more use of private land. Hunting leases can benefit landowners, sportsmen and wildlife. In many cases, leasing stimulates better wildlife management on private land. To some extent wildlife competes with livestock, crops, timber and people for space, food, cover and water. If property owners see wildlife and wildlife habitat as an asset, they will be encouraged to manage for it.

It is important to have defined goals, provide reasonably adequate hunting, carefully interview potential lessees, charge a reasonable price, use a good written lease agreement, monitor game populations and management practices, and regulate the game harvest when necessary.

Many landowners lease hunting rights to increase their income. In some cases, maintaining wildlife populations and habitat can also improve land values. A hunting lease can be adapted to fit individual situations. An individual should evaluate the benefits and costs to determine whether a hunting lease is right for their property. You should also remember that you are marketing the opportunity to access to your land for the purposes specified in the written lease agreement. You are not selling wildlife, which is publicly owned.

From a hunter’s perspective, a hunting lease provides a relatively secure place to hunt with little competition. Leasing allows a hunter or landowner to have some control over hunter safety by controlling the distribution of hunters. Leasing also allows a hunter or landowner to better manage game populations through increased control of the harvest.

Developing a hunting lease can have negative implications and drawbacks. A hunting lease can serve to limit opportunities for hunters to access private property. Many hunters and wildlife enthusiasts and some landowners dislike the concept of hunting leases because leasing may help increase the cost of hunting. Many people believe hunting should be a right in the United States. Leasing of hunting rights increases a landowner’s liability risk. Some landowners do not like dealing with the public in managing a hunting lease enterprise. As in any business venture, successful interaction depends on strong communication and social skills. Proper management of a hunting lease is not easy. Managing a hunting lease will require an investment of time created by the new enterprise.

Resources

MU Extension publications

This guide was reviewed and edited by R. Caleb Colbert, Lawyer, Haden & Colbert.
Original authors: Robert A. Pierce II, Kevin C. Moore and Stephen F. Matthews

The authors acknowledge that some of the information in this publication has been modified or adapted from the following publications:

  • Lease Hunting Opportunities for Oklahoma Landowners, NREM-5032, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma

  • Earning Additional Income through Hunting Leases on Private Land, PB 1627, Agricultural Extension Service, University of Tennessee