Setting Up a Hunting Preserve

As the deer and elk farming industry grows, more operators are considering setting up hunting preserves to complement the production side of their business. If you are thinking of establishing a "high wire" hunting operation, this article looks at some of the factors that you should consider.

The popularity and use of hunting preserves is growing. There are many reasons for this.

1. Fewer places to hunt - public lands are being gobbled up by development and private hunting leases. More land is being posted, and many farmers and ranchers don't permit hunting on their lands (can't blame them). Hunting preserves are an alternative.

2. Overcrowding - with less land and more people interested in hunting, public lands near large population areas get pretty crowded during the hunting season, especially on opening day. This has negative implications for hunter safety, quality of the hunting experience and availability of quality trophy animals. Hunting preserves strictly limited the number of hunters at any one time.

3. Short seasons - in many areas, hunting seasons are short - from a few days to a few weeks, usually in the late fall. Unless you can get time off work, this usually means only a few weekends are available to you to go hunting. Hunting on preserves can be done from August to December, and even longer.

4. Lack of quality animals - it is getting increasingly difficult to bag a trophy buck in the wild. There are many reasons for this. One is that selective hunting - shooting the biggest bucks - results in a drain on the genetic pool by removing the best breeders. Bad winters and poaching also take their toll of animals. Preserves offer quality trophy animals that are raised on deer and elk farms.

5. Time constraints - everyone these days seems to have to work harder and longer. It is not possible for many people to spend the time scouting before hunting season, and spending days locating, and tracking down that trophy animal. Many people have several weeks vacation time, that most of that better be spent with the family! Busy people who like to hunt are looking at options. Preserves offer longer seasons, and one to three days is all you usually need to harvest a trophy.

6. Expectation of success - people with money are usually successful in their fields of endeavor. Therefore, they expect (and require) success in their pursuit of a trophy. They are not too excited to spend two weeks with an outfitter and not even see a world-class trophy. These type of people expect results! Clients of hunting preserves usually experience 100% success rate due to the availability of large number of quality animals.

7. More disposable income - with the US and Canadian economies having done so well in the last decade, there is much more disposable income available. This includes people who like to hunt, and they are willing to spend some of their cash on a quality hunting experience. Many more people can now afford to hunt in a preserve.

8. Expense - cost of public hunting seems to be going up - everything from the cost of fees to transportation to accommodation. The cost gap between public hunting and hunting on a preserves is getting narrower.

9. Skills - the skills required for getting a trophy animal in the wild are considerable - you have to be in excellent physical shape and be a good shot. As with all things, this requires lots of practice, which in turn takes time and facilities - all which most of us don't have! Preserve hunting does not require the same level of skill, and is ideal for persons with physical limitations or disabilities.

10. Safety - as already mentioned, hunting in a crowd of people with high-powered rifles is anything but safe. Preserves limit the number of hunters at any one time.

11. Health concerns - trophies harvested in the wild run the risk of having disease such as CWD or TB. Preserve animals have been tested and are known to be disease-free.

12. Availability - if you want to hunt a wild trophy elk, you probably have to put your name into a draw. Many people won't be drawn in their lifetime. However, many preserves can offer you a hunt for a trophy elk any time you want.

13. Out-of-state fees and requirements - if you want to hunt wild deer and elk in another state or province, you get dinged with hefty license fees. Also, you usually are required to use the services of an outfitter and guide. Heck, for the same money, you can experience a quality trophy hunt on a preserve with all the advantages mentioned above.

14. Many rules and regulations - have you looked at the rules and regulations recently associated with public hunting? It is nearly impossible to remember them all and you constantly run the risk of inadvertently violating one of them. Yes, preserves have rules too, but things are a lot simpler.

15. Zealous conservation officers - most fish and game officers are a decent lot. However, there are others who take their roles too seriously and harass hunters. I really don't like to be stopped, searched and questioned when I haven't done anything wrong. This is not an issue with preserve hunting.

16. First Nations - in Canada, Natives have the right to hunt big game all year round. In certain regions, this has an impact on the numbers and quality of game animals available, and on the limits and length of seasons for other hunters.

17. Gun laws - in Canada, with the new firearm regulations, buying and owning a gun is becoming a real hassle. Many people who previously used to hunt have gotten rid of their firearms to avoid registration. However, these people can still hunt on a preserve if the operators provide the rifles or bows.

Hunting on a preserve offers a quality hunting experience devoid of all the hassles and problems described above. It is no wonder that people that love to hunt are turning to hunting preserves!

In addition to the above, hunting preserves offer a number of other broader benefits. These include such things as:

1. Support to elk and deer industries - as these continue to grow, markets are needed for the older, mature bucks and elk bulls. Hunting preserves provide greater per animal revenues for trophy animals than would any other markets such as venison.

2. Value-added revenues stay at home - hunting preserves usually pay producers 50% of the final value of the trophy animal. By having your own preserve, or by selling to a local preserve, this money stays in your pocket and in your community.

3. Increased tourism and spin-off revenues - hunting preserves can attract clients from other regions of the country, and from other countries. This brings in significant tourism revenues, and provides opportunities for other local businesses as well, e.g., motels, taxidermists, meat processors, etc.

4. Support rural communities - because of their very nature, most hunting preserves are best located in remote, rural areas. A hunting preserve, thus can contribute significantly to the sustainability and economy of rural communities.

5. Increased tourism in off-seasons - fall is the slow period with tourism in North America, but is the peak hunting season. Thus, hunting preserves can extend the tourism season in regions where they exist.

6. Relieving pressure on wild game hunting - by attracting more hunters, preserves can reduce the numbers of people who hunt on public lands and areas.

7. Improved health of animals - most of the research and health advancements related to deer and elk have been the result of work initiated, funded and supported by the deer and elk farming industry. This knowledge and strategies can also be used to diagnose and improve the health of wild herds.

8. Opportunities for handicapped hunters - many preserves offer special hunts for people with disabilities. Many of these people would not otherwise be able to enjoy this experience of a lifetime.

9. Diversion of pressure from non-resident hunters will shorten list for some draws.

Hunting preserves, like other tourism businesses, offer many environmental, ecological and economical benefits.

However, as most deer and elk farmers are aware, hunting preserves also face a number of challenges and issues.

1. Opposition - there are individuals and groups strongly opposed to hunting preserves. These include:

  • Members of the general public who have strong beliefs that hunting in general is wrong, and especially killing animals for sport within a confined area.
  • Some hunters feel that hunting in a preserves degrades the sport; that real hunters don't participate in "canned hunts."
  • Many hunter associations are also opposed, believing that the growth of hunting preserves will negatively impact public hunting opportunities.
  • Wildlife management agencies and government departments don't always fully support game farms or hunting preserves. It may have something to do with reduced revenues from public hunting licenses and risks to their jobs.

2. Regulatory environment - because hunting preserves are a contentious issue in many jurisdictions, keeping their operations legal is a challenge. Take a look at what happened in Montana where the public voted to close game farms and preserves down. This is a risk you have to seriously assess if you are planning to start up a hunting preserve.

3. Safety - neighbours of hunting preserves may raise some objections to their existence and operation. This is mainly due to safety considerations. A buffer zone and consultation with your neighbours is probably a good idea.

4. Fair chase - one of the concerns about hunting preserves is "fair chase", that the animal has an opportunity to evade the hunter. Also, it is not clear whether trophy animals shot on a preserve qualify for the record books under the guidelines of Boone & Crockett, Safari Club, BuckMasters, etc.

So if you are planning to set up a hunting preserve, here are a dozen factors you should evaluate:

1. Legality - you can't set up a hunting preserve in your state or province if they are not legally permitted. Even if they are legal, you may want to assess any movement by opponents to get them banned.

2. Organizational structure - the prevalent thinking these days seems to be to keep your game farm and hunting preserves as separate entities. Game farms are agricultural businesses, and hunting preserves are eco-tourism operations. If hunting preserves are banned, then at least the game farms can continue to operate.

3. Location - hunting preserves are best located within reasonable driving distance from large population centers. This makes it more convenient for the clients and reduces their costs. If you want to locate in North Dakota or Saskatchewan, then you better offer something extra for the addition costs, time and effort required to hunt on your preserve.

4. Positioning - up to now, most hunting preserves have catered to the wealthier clientele with fees ranging up to $25,000 for a trophy animal. Due to the factors listed above, some hunting preserves are now offering more affordable hunts in the $750 to $1,500 range. You need to decide where to "position" your hunting preserve - high, middle or low end. All marketing then must be consistent with your positioning.

5. Competition - you need to analyze and know your competition. What hunting preserves are your direct competitors? What are they offering, and what are your competitive advantages? You will need to distinguish yourself from your competition.

6. Supply of animals - where are you going to get your hunting animals? Are you going to raise them yourself, buy them or a combination? Right now, there is a shortage of quality trophy animals, especially white-tailed bucks in the 200+ category. Increased demand will drive up prices, which in turn will require you to increase your fees. As part of your planning, it is important that you source a reliable supply of trophy animals.

7. Facilities - these include the amount of land for the preserve, accommodation, lodge and other facilities needed to cater to your clients. The size of the operation should be sufficient to address the fair chase issue, e.g., 500 acres or more. You may want to have several locations to enable you have serve several hunters at the same time, while keeping overhead down. Options also include having hunters stay at local motels. It is important to remember that for the fees clients are paying to hunt, they expect to be pampered.

8. Features, services and options - the more of these you offer, the more competitive your hunting preserve will be. Is there something for families to do? Do you offer a wide range of hunts to meet everyone's needs and price range? Do you look after mounting the trophy and packaging the meat?

9. Dealing with the opposition - as indicated above, hunting preserves do have their opponents. You will need to have a plan to deal with any opposition. Some suggestions are to adopt and follow a code of ethics (see next article), to join and participate in your local and national industry associations, to offer free hunts to a handicapped person, and to constantly communicate with the local community about the benefits your operation brings.

10. Marketing - as the number of preserves grows, and the competition increases, you must have a marketing plan. This plan will likely include activities such as having a website, being listed in appropriate directories, attending hunter trade shows, ads in hunter magazines and being included in local tourism promotions.

11. Staff - any successful operation requires good management and employees. Hunting preserves are in the service business and excellent customer service is required for long-term success. Will you have the management and staff knowledge and expertise that is required to run a successful hunting preserve? If not, do you have a plan to acquire or develop these skills and competencies?

12. Financial - to set up a hunting preserve to meet the criteria discussed above will require a considerable amount of financial investment. Do you have that type of investment, or will you require some debt or equity financing? What are the implications of this financing on your profitability and control of the operation? You should do 5 to 10 year financial projections to reassure yourself that your hunting preserve will be profitable.

As with any other business venture, you should develop and prepare a comprehensive business plan for your hunting preserve. You will need one anyway if any type of financing is required. Your business plan should address all of the above factors and serve as your to-do list to get started.

Hunting preserves offer an exciting business opportunity for deer and elk farmers. Hopefully, the identification and discussion of the critical factors and issues in this article will help you decide if and how you want to proceed with setting up your own preserve.