As a third-generation Texas rancher, Richard Nunley knows the value of raising quality cattle.
But he's also come to realize the importance of managing his ranch more holistically, and understands that preserving and protecting wildlife habitat not only is good for his cows, but also for his bottom line.
The bulk of Nunley Brothers Ranches, which is owned and managed by Richard and his brother Bob, is located in the Texas brush country about 60 miles west of San Antonio. It's known for trophy whitetail bucks, quail and wild hogs, which make his property highly coveted by hunters.
Nunley's grandfather first saw the economic value in leasing these lands for hunting several decades ago, and the family has slowly built on his success since that time.
Nunley estimates hunting revenue represents about 50 percent of the income for his business today; he charges about $11/acre on average, per year.
“It's become very important to us,” he says. “Hunting income has really been on a steady increase for the last 20 to 25 years. Cattle prices go up and down, but the hunting is a very solid reliable source of income for us.”
The family's hunting enterprise is structured so the Nunleys don't have too spend much time with the hunters themselves. Instead of providing guided hunts, they simply lease out specific pastures to interested parties, and the hunters take it from there.
Responsibilities come with the lease, however.
The lessees must adhere to the lease's wildlife management plans, developed each year by the Nunleys with the help of a biologist from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The plans not only help improve wildlife habitat and population, they also ensure the lessees take ownership in the land's management and health of wildlife populations.
“We've found that multi-year leases work best, because the hunters are more likely to invest in improvements if they know they're going to be there for awhile,” says Nunley. “They know they can invest in time and money, because they'll have the opportunity to harvest from their work down the road.”
Most of the hunters pay for their own stands, provide their own lodging, and invest in the installation of feeders and blinds.
“The toys are half the fun for a lot of these guys,” says Nunley.
Payment for the leases is normally handled incrementally throughout the year, with down-payment at the beginning of the year to demonstrate a seriousness of intent, and a final payment by the time the hunting season starts. Many of the leases extend for as much as five years.
Key to making this work, adds Nunley, is ensuring the hunters adhere to the conditions set forth in the contract.
“Like any other business, you have to be firm,” he says. “You can't allow them to fudge the rules. There're dangers involved with firearms and groups of people, so you have to be cautious about who you work with. Most of the individuals who are leasing from us today are much more interested in the quality of the animals. They want a good experience, they want good animals to hunt, and they want a long-term commitment.”
Guided hunting opportunities
Like Nunley, Greg Shearer and his family have found a reliable revenue stream through their hunting enterprise. Their ranch rests among the breaks of the Cheyenne River, and it's prime habitat for Mule Deer and other wild game.
Shearer, who is a rancher from Wall, S.D., provides guided and semi-guided hunts for his clients. They pay him for his expertise, lodging and meals – and for the access to his lands. The family devotes considerable time and energy to ensuring their clients have a satisfactory recreational experience – and that can equate to conflicts with cows.
During the spring turkey hunt, for instance, Shearer has to bring in extra help to assist with the calving.
All told, the ranch brings in about 50 guests each year. Most of them are archery hunters who come seeking trophy mule deer bucks. Others come to hunt antelope, turkey, Sharp Tail Grouse, ducks, geese and doves.
“We run into all kinds of people,” says Shearer. “Some of them are avid, lifelong hunters. Others have never hunted before, and this is their first time.”
Since they started the hunting business more than 30 years ago, Shearer estimates hunting income represents about 25 percent of his business's income. That's helped his family weather the impacts of fluctuating cattle markets, and provided them with a better revenue stream.
“We do very little advertising, so we have a high number of repeat customers,” he says. “A lot of the new customers that we pick up are from word of mouth. Most of them come from out of state.”
Why do it?
"Basically, there are two motivations for managing wildlife on your property. One is for personal recreation. Either you enjoy seeing or viewing wildlife, enjoy having them on your place – or you, your family or guests intend to hunt them," says Dale Rollins, extension wildlife specialist for Texas A&M University. "The other is a commercial situation, where you are charging someone for the trespass rights to enjoy deer, quail, turkey or other wildlife.”
“A grazing lease worth $4 to $5 per acre may well be worth that much or more as a quail or deer lease,” Rollins adds.
This additional revenue can be particularly beneficial for cattle producers during periods of bad cattle prices, and can ensure a steady revenue stream during periods of drought.
“Hunting is relatively drought resistant,” Rollins says. “I know a rancher whose hunting revenues account for 30 percent of his gross profit during good years – and 65 percent in bad years.”
Key to understanding the hunting business is realizing that it's not going away anytime soon – and that recreational demands on rural landscapes will continue to increase.
“When a rancher goes out of business, is that property bought by another rancher?” asks Rollins. “No. It's usually someone from Atlanta, San Francisco or somewhere else who wants to use it for recreation. This is a very strong trend in land ownership patterns.”
Because of this trend, Rollins says, ranchers have two choices: “Either you can learn with them or we can learn to work for them,” he says.
Rollins says ranchers should be encouraged – not discouraged -- by the trend toward hunting and recreational use of ranchland – and see it as a way of capturing an additional revenue stream for their businesses.
The place to start is knowing what you have to sell.
“You've got to know what wildlife you have on your ranch,” says Rollins. “You've got to know their habitats. And you've got to know what recreational experiences you have to offer.”
Rollins advises that ranchers talk to wildlife experts as a way of inventorying species on their ranches – and determining which course of action should be taken.
Next, ranchers should look at the available habitat for wildlife on their properties. If there's no brush, no water and no grass because your cows have pounded it, there's probably not too much wildlife on your land.
"Every landowner or land manager should carry a camera, and use it to build a scrapbook of the vegetation on their place," he adds. "Habitat is the foundation of your land management plan. There are a number of resources available to landowners who want to improve their wildlife and land management, but don't know where to get started.
“Without habitat, you cannot have healthy populations or deer, elk or gamebirds. Then you adopt your cattle management practices to ensure you're improving habitat for those species.
“Conservation plays a key part in this,” adds Shearer. “You do have to have good conservation skills, so that you have adequate habitat for the wildlife. You can't let your cows tromp everything into the ground.”
Being an effective habitat manager also requires that you understand the species you're trying to protect. That means you need to learn how to properly identify specific species, determine their age and health, understand the impacts of nutrition on their overall health. They should also know how to conduct habitat assessment, identify beneficial plant species, predators, conduct brush control and controlled grazing practices to improve vegetation.
In essence, you need to wear a camouflage cowboy hat that balances the needs of your cattle operation with the needs of your hunting enterprise.
“You must appreciate the tradeoffs between the livestock enterprise and the wildlife enterprise,” Rollins says. “You cannot maximize revenue from livestock and wildlife simultaneously, so you need to recognize there are tradeoffs. You have to keep these things in balance.”
Finally, it's a good idea to know what kind of person you are, and to what level you enjoy – or dislike – working with others.
Shearer says one of the challenges of running a hunting operation is dealing with all the different personalities of hunters who come there. Some like close, personal attention. Others prefer to be left alone. Occasionally, there can be real problems, too.
“Everyone is different,” Shearer says. ‘Everyone has different expectations. You just need to learn to get along with them.”
“It's always best if you walk before you run,” advises Rollins. “And once you begin bringing in hunters or recreationists onto your property, use a written lease so that everyone knows what the expectations are. From there, you continuously improve your management – evaluate and adjust your practices based on what you've learned.”
Tips for Hunting Leases
A good hunting lease describes the agreements between landowner and hunter to prevent any misunderstandings about the privileges being purchased. It should include the following elements:
1. Limit the agreement to the person and lands involved.
2. State the price and the kind of animals the lessee may hunt.
3. Describe the land to be leased.
4. Prevent the lessee(s) from subleasing the property.
5. State clearly which rights are included in the lease, such as hunting, camping, picnicking etc.
6. State that lessee(s) is responsible for posting sign on the land at his expense.
7. Protect timber, structures and fences from damage caused by signs.
8. Comment on trespass and wildfire by having the lessee agree to help protect the land from trespass and fire.
9. Require that lessee observe wildlife laws.
10. Include a clause to limit your liability for accidents.
11. Include a clause to prevent littering.
12. Reserve the right to cancel the lease.
13. Include a clause to state the dates covered by the lease.
14 Have all parties sign the lease.
Source: Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, University of Georgia