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Hunting Access in Massachusetts

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By Tom O’Shea | Assistant Director for Wildlife

Hunters are in decline, both in numbers and as a percentage of our population. Between 1958 and 2008, the number of resident hunters in Massachusetts declined by 49%—from 124,849 to 63,667. This trend should be of concern to everyone because, in addition to the many cultural and health benefits of hunting, hunters are a crucial tool that wildlife biologists and the public rely on to manage certain game populations, support wildlife research, and contribute to land protection and other natural resource conservation programs.

According to a nationwide survey conducted in 2008, the top three reasons why people discontinue hunting are: 1) aging and associated physical limitations, 2) time constraints because of work and family obligations, and, 3) lack of access for hunting. Of these, “lack of access” is the only one that fish and wildlife agencies, conservation and sporting organizations, communities, and landowners can realistically expect to influence in any significant way.

In Massachusetts, the country’s third most densely populated state, it is not surprising that the urbanization of the landscape presents a barrier to access. Urbanization erects both physical and psychological barricades between people and undeveloped lands. This can gradually separate and isolate people from participating in traditional outdoor activities like fishing and hunting, and even more insidiously, prevent them from developing a healthy relationship with nature and acquiring a realistic understanding of its workings. Young people in particular are now largely separated from the natural world and spending less time outdoors than any previous generation.

But are hunters separated from access in Massachusetts? What barriers to hunting do they encounter on our landscape? To answer these questions, we need to look at three major barriers to hunting access in the Commonwealth: 1) discharge setbacks around developed areas, 2) private lands posted against hunting, and 3) city/town restrictions (local bylaws/ordinances) on hunting practices.

Discharge Setbacks and Sprawl

Figure 1 4C h access.psd

Using modern geographic tools we see that 60%—roughly 3.1 million acres—of Massachusetts falls within a discharge setback or “safety zone.” A discharge setback, as illustrated to the right, is an area defined by state law which prohibits the discharge of any firearm or release of any arrow across or within 150 feet of a “hard-surfaced highway” or the possession of a loaded firearm or hunting “by any means on the land of another within 500 feet of a dwelling in use, except as authorized by the owner or occupant thereof.” This statute has been around for over 50 years to provide a “safety zone” for the public, landowners, and hunters alike.

While discharge setbacks around roads and houses are important for public safety, the loss of hunting access that setbacks create is exacerbated by sprawl and rapid development of the landscape.

Figure 4B 4C h access.psd

The image to the right shows a small part of Middlesex County (shown in red) currently encompassed by discharge setbacks. Communities with 25% or more forest cover, coupled with a large percentage of land area closed by discharge setback or municipal restrictions on shooting or hunting, frequently experience impacts from higher deer densities. Typically, these impacts include a higher incidence of vehicle collisions with deer, damage to landscaping and agricultural crops, and Lyme disease. Such communities frequently ask the DFW for assistance in finding ways to deal with their concerns.

While it is possible for landowners to permit hunters to hunt within the setback, it is typically difficult for hunters to gain access when permission is required from multiple abutting landowners. As a result, many hunters take their sport—and their ability to reduce deer numbers—elsewhere. However, when town residents, hunters, and our staff work cooperatively to find ways to reduce deer densities, success can generally be achieved within just a few years.

Posting of Private Land

A hunting license affords an individual the privilege to hunt wild game regardless of whether or not he or she is a landowner. Wildlife in America is the sovereign property of the government, held in trust as a public resource for the enjoyment of all. The New England colonies were the first to create laws to provide physical access to this “common” resource. They allowed the public the right to access private land for the purposes of hunting, trapping, and fishing.

This legal tradition later resulted in the development of “posting statutes” within states which sought to provide public access to wildlife resources while balancing the private property rights of landowners. As the colonial agrarian landscape of Massachusetts began to change, posted land probably increased with the growing population associated with industrialization. A study in 1956 indicated that 20% of all private landowners in the Commonwealth posted their land at that time. A 2004 survey estimated that about 477,000 acres (29%) of privately owned woodlands were posted by their owners in Massachusetts. There are likely thousands of additional acres posted by other types of landowners including certain land trusts and other non-profit organizations.

Research on why landowners post their land has yielded conflicting results, but a few reasons consistently float to the top: 1) fear of property damage, 2) concern for liability, 3) negative interactions with hunters, and, 4) exclusive hunting use (hunters wishing to exclude other hunters). Hunters can have a genuine, positive influence in changing landowner attitudes and gaining access, however. The author of the 1956 study noted that “59% of landowners who post their land will allow hunters if permission is asked.” That finding still rings true in landowner surveys conducted today and indicates that hunters who ask for permission to hunt will often be rewarded. A hunter can go a long way toward gaining access from a landowner by showing respect and developing a friendly relationship. There are any number of ways to do this including politely asking for permission from landowners, educating them about the safety and benefits of hunting, learning what is important to them, helping them with property stewardship, and informing them about your own experiences, ethics, and safety. The future of hunting access is dependent on hunter conduct and the relationships hunters build with private landowners.

Some landowners post their land because they are concerned about the risk of liability. In Massachusetts, however, there is a statute (Chapter 21, Section 17C) that protects landowners from liability for “personal injuries or property damage” when they permit the public to use their land for “recreational, conservation, scientific, educational, environmental, ecological, research, religious, or charitable purposes without imposing a charge or fee…” Landowners are protected by this statute unless they charge a fee for access to their land. The “fee” aspect of this law may help discourage the proliferation of hunting leases that preclude public access for all in favor of the highest bidder. Exclusive leasing is anathema to “common use” of a public resource and runs counter to outdoor cultural tradition in New England.

City / Town Restrictions

Closed Towns Graphic map_edited.pdf

Not a year goes by without a town or city in Massachusetts considering the question of hunting access on town lands. Conservation commissions and other municipal officials are often faced with questions over whether a town or city should open or close its municipal lands to hunting. What types of hunting should be allowed and under what conditions? What can be done about managing the deer population? Is a bylaw necessary? DFW staff is available to provide technical assistance and guidance when such issues arise.

It is understandable that communities tend to look at such issues—and the consequences of whatever decisions they make—as solely their own, but the results of each city or town’s decisions if lands are closed to hunting can accumulate to significant regional and statewide losses of access. As of 2003, at least 161 cities and towns—or 45% of all municipalities in the Commonwealth—have restricted hunting access in some way (Figure 3). In comparison, only about 12% of municipalities restricted hunting access in 1956.

Behind many of these restrictions are the same reasons that private land is posted. Like landowners, communities are often unaware that the discharge setback already encompasses much of their land area and has worked to protect landowners, hunters, and the public. They may not know that Massachusetts has an excellent record of hunter safety and requires all first time hunters to attend and pass a comprehensive hunter education program. Cities and towns will undoubtedly continue to grapple with the issue of hunting access. Hunters are reminded that they can play an important role not only in the discussion of the public benefits of hunting access, but also in bringing facts and evidence to bear in the local decision-making process.

While maintaining and even increasing hunter access to state and municipal lands is important, access to private land will always be a crucial factor in responsible deer management. The deer herd does not restrict its range to public lands open to hunting, so in order to manage the herd, we cannot restrict hunters to public lands. With 56% of the statewide deer harvest now taken on private land, if all private land in the state were closed to hunting, the deer harvest would be reduced by more than half and local deer populations would quickly grow out of control.

What Will the Future Look Like?

According to Mass Audubon’s Losing Ground IV report, the rate of development in Massachusetts between 1995 and 2005 was 22 acres per day. If this rate continues over the next 50 years, what will this mean for the loss of hunting access? First, consider that a 22-acre development in a forest, without overlap of any existing setbacks, can remove at least 54 acres through the discharge setback. Next, assume that future development of 22 acres per day removes only one-half of that, or 27 acres. At this rate, there would be a loss of nearly 500,000 acres in discharge setback over the next 50 years, plus another 400,000 acres in actual direct loss from development. Is a loss of one million acres over the next 50 years unreasonable?

If the estimates are correct, over 75% of the state would fall within discharge setback! Add in closures of private land, conservation organizations, land trusts, and town lands, and the majority of hunting access in the future may likely rest squarely on state public land, most of which is located in western and parts of central Massachusetts. Sure, 50 years is a long time and the loss of hunting access is gradual. It is so gradual that we can forget that we are losing it. Although public land acquisition has been valuable for ensuring hunter access, land acquisition alone may not be enough.

Non-commercial, private forest landowners control about 76% of all forestland in the state. These landowners, along with communities, will be part of any long-term solution for providing hunting access and the public benefits hunting and wildlife management sustain. From this perspective, hunters and other conservation and environmental advocates have a shared interest in protecting these lands from development. The older you get, the faster time seems to slip away. Fifty years will be here in no time. If you think hunting is an important tradition to pass on to your children here in Massachusetts, don’t forget: they will need a place to hunt…

Tom O’Shea is Assistant Director of Wildlife for the MDFW and a licensed Massachusetts forester. He oversees the Wildlife Section which is responsible for research and management of the state’s game and furbearer species, as well as the agency’s forestry and upland habitat management programs. The original and much more detailed version of this article first appeared in Massachusetts Wildlife magazine, issue No. 4, 2009.

Regulations in red are new this year.

Purple text indicates an important note.

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