Getting Along with Landowners
Here are 10 ways to make landowners happy and get invited back
By Russell A. Graves
More than 94 percent of Texas’ 171 million acres is privately owned. Because of the minuscule amount of public land in Texas, most hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities take place on private land. Users pay a trespass fee — usually referred to as a lease — for the privilege of access. Protecting that privilege and maintaining a good relationship with the landowner takes effort. The following tips can help keep your landowner happy.
Respect the land as if it were your own.
When you invite people into your home, you expect them to treat it with respect. Let that concept be your guide as you tread upon land that belongs to someone else.
Minnie Bradley owns a sprawling Angus cattle ranch in the Texas Panhandle that she season-leases for hunting deer and quail. “The cattle, people, wildlife and land are all tied together on my ranch, and I like people who recognize that relationship and respect it,” she says.
The golden rule of leasing is not to do anything on someone else’s property you wouldn’t want done on yours.
Stay on established roads.
Ranchers spend thousands of dollars to build and maintain roads throughout their ranches. The reason for roads is twofold: to give ranchers access to remote parts of their ranch, and to maintain the integrity of the pastures they carefully manage.
Royce Siebman, a conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Childress County, day-leases his land to hunters from all over the country. Siebman looks with disdain on people who drive off his established roads, and he has the professional expertise to recognize the impact. “Grasslands are fragile ecosystems, and soil conditions affect how grass grows,” says Siebman. “I have seen tire tracks made on a pasture that still exist several years later.”
Ranchers such as Siebman who raise beef cattle on their land are basically grass farmers. Their goal is to maintain healthy stands of forage so that their cattle can eat the grass and convert it into beef. Ultimately, the profit they make from their cattle depends on the health of their grass.
Driving your pickup or all-terrain vehicle off-road can be deadly to grass. During dry weather, simply driving on grass can kill vegetation by crushing it beneath the tires. Soil compaction compounds the problem. When soil becomes packed hard from the weight of vehicles, roots can’t penetrate the soil, and rain can’t soak into the soil. Water that runs off creates erosion.
Traveling off ranch roads in the rain can have much the same effect. Driving over muddy pastures tears up the ground. Once the soil is disturbed, pioneer plants, ones that are usually unpalatable to cattle, often take the place of protein-producing forage.
Unless you have a landowner’s explicit permission, stick to the existing roads. Otherwise, you may be shown the gate.
Leave gates as you find them.
Rotational grazing is the practice of allowing animals to graze on a parcel of land for a specified length of time while other parcels are allowed to rest. The premise of rotational grazing is that while one block of land is being grazed, the other pastures are given time to recuperate from grazing pressure and grow new forage. If a ranch is broken into four parcels and each pasture is grazed for three months, each pasture gets nine months in which to recover.
Rotational grazing could explain why sometimes you go into a pasture and a gate is open, and the next time it is closed. The best rule is, unless you have been given instructions to the contrary by the landowner or manager, leave gates as you find them.
Offer to help out with chores.
Perhaps there is no better way to show a landowner that you care about his or her place than offering to help with chores. Imagine someone offering to mow your lawn. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Now, maybe you can appreciate how ranchers may feel when you offer them a little respite from their busy schedules.
Perhaps they need help working cattle or have a shed that needs a fresh coat of paint. Can you pick up something they need when you go into town for lunch? The idea is to be attentive to the needs of the landowner and offer to help whenever you can.
Most importantly, offer your help free of charge. Look at it as a way of saying thanks. Whether you pay for the privilege to trespass or not is immaterial. The point is to be a good neighbor. As such, friends are always willing to help friends.
I know. You may be thinking, “I pay for the lease, why should I give gifts?”
But consider that at its core, the business deal made between lessor and lessee is the basis of a relationship. If you are new to a place and are just getting to know the owners, a gift is a great way to say that your new relationship is important to you and you want to see it continue. An initial business deal can grow into a friendship in which you and the landowner have a mutual interest in the continued productivity of the land.
Gifts don’t have to be extravagant. Photographs of a deer you took in one of their pastures or a gift of fresh fish or game may fit the bill. Cards sent on birthdays, holidays or anniversaries — occasionally stuffed with a restaurant gift certificate — can also go a long way toward telling landowners that you cherish the privilege they have provided you.
Make litter your business.
This one is a no-brainer. You know how unsightly litter is along public roadways. It looks even worse on private lands. Never, under any circumstances, litter. And if you find any trash, even if it isn’t yours, pick it up promptly.
Trash is more than empty bottles or candy wrappers. It includes spent shells, clipped fishing line and film canisters — anything you bring onto the place with you.
Minnie Bradley says that someone who throws cigarette butts in her pastures won’t be invited back. In fire-prone rangelands, a misplaced cigarette butt can cause untold economic damage.
Make sure you know your guest privileges.
When you first secure permission to go on a ranch, make sure you and the landowner have a clear understanding on the matter of guest privileges. Are you allowed to bring family members or other guests? Maybe it is OK for you to bird watch, but what about your sister? Can you bring her? If so, does she have to stay with you or can she venture out on her own?
The adage about it being easier to act first and ask forgiveness later does not apply here. It is always safer to be a bit of a pest and ask lots of questions initially instead of making assumptions about what you are allowed to do.
A common mistake is bringing a guest and allowing the person to hunt. Unless the landowner specifically grants permission, this is a quick way to lose a lease. Imagine all the guest scenarios you possibly can and get answers about them before you start planning a trip. A landowner’s denial of guest privileges may not be anything personal. Instead, she or he may be acting upon the advice of counsel regarding liability. Remember, too, that income from leasing is what enables many ranchers to survive tough economic times. If they give away too much, they may not have a place to lease.
Report anything out of the ordinary.
This point goes back to being a good neighbor. If you have a hunting lease and visit it often, chances are you’ll see some parts of the ranch more frequently than the landowner does. Keep an eye on things like the fences. If you see a strand of fence wire broken or a post uprooted, tell the landowner. He will appreciate the heads-up on averting a potential problem.
Also, be on the watch for trespassers, livestock in trouble, washed-out roads, water-supply problems or anything else that doesn’t seem right.
Be sensitive to landowners’ relationships with their neighbors and report anything out of the ordinary on adjoining properties. Siebman says land users need to realize how important neighbors are to each other in rural Texas.
“Remember the landowner has neighbors and think how you can help that relationship,” Siebman says. “An example would be if a deer jumped the property fence after it was shot and the lessee needs to go onto the neighbor’s property to get it. Always call and get permission.”
Become the landowner’s partner in preserving the economic and ecological well-being of the land. By being a part of a ranch’s management scheme instead of detracting from it, you will make yourself welcome for many years to come.
Play by the landowner’s rules.
Although the state sets bag limits for game, landowners have the right to set lower limits, and many do. Respect the landowner’s wildlife management plans. If a management plan allows only bass over 18 inches to be kept, or bucks with eight points or more to be shot, abide by the rules.
If you are a photographer or nature watcher, never put getting a photograph or a look at an animal over the welfare of the subject. Harassing wildlife is unethical and shows lack of respect.
Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Communication is probably the most important concept to grasp when it comes to getting along with landowners. At the initial meeting, get any potential issues such as guest privileges or limits to visitation times on the table so they can be discussed and resolved in a civil manner.
Once the provisions for your visitation have been ironed out, make it a point to sit down often with the landowner and visit as friends, not as business associates.
“We have a busy ranch, so I like to have hunters call ahead of time and let me know when they’ll be there,” says Bradley. “All of my hunters are great at communicating when they plan on being out and are always quick to let me know if they see any problems on the ranch.”
Effective communication is a two-way street, though. Make sure that the landowner can get in touch with you when necessary. Make yourself available whenever they want to meet – even if you’d rather be out taking photos that time of day.
Spend time cultivating your relationships with landowners and you will become a partner in the ongoing conservation of wild resources on private Texas lands. “Honesty and integrity should be first and foremost in any landowner/lessee relationship,” says Siebman. “If someone who uses my land is honest about what they are doing and has good communication with me, that is usually enough to make me want to keep them around.”