2017-11-02 / Outdoors

State revs up promotion of Hunter Access Program

Many hunters agree that finding land to hang a deer stand can be more difficult than actually harvesting a buck.

They may benefit in the future from a program being pushed by state and county officials to pay landowners to open up their property to hunters — but so far, there have been no takers in Leelanau County.

Monique Ferris, coordinator of the Hunter Access Program (HAP), hopes to spark interest among orchardists and other farmers while speaking at the Leelanau Conservation District’s annual meeting and open house set for noon next Thursday, Nov. 9. She will provide details about the program, which “strives to increase the amount of acreage available to hunters, encourage improved wildlife management, reduce nuisance species and stimulate local economies.” The program was founded downstate in 1977 but has since expanded to northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

Since becoming available in 2015, the HAP has enrolled a grand total of zero properties on the peninsula.

Why the overwhelming rejection?

“I know there’s a lot of landowners who allow other people to hunt their farms through rental or lease arrangements,” said Cedar cherry grower Ben LaCross, the District 9 director on the Michigan Farm Bureau Board of Directors. “We allow dozens of hunters to hunt on our farms — we just don’t use government programs to do it.”

Participating landowners receive liability protection and annual compensation payments of up to $25 per acre. They also decide which type of hunting they’d like to allow on their property.

One would think county orchardists wouldn’t mind receiving an extra buck or two for, well, a buck or two.

Why hasn’t that been the case?

“Fences have displaced dozens of hunters on our farms in the last couple years,” LaCross said. “We can’t withstand that deer-damage threshold.”

Empire Township cherry grower Tom Casier echoed a similar sentiment.

Casier said he’s starting to see more fences in areas where growers previously refused to install them.

“Empire farmers have learned to put fences up before the cherries go in,” said Casier, both a farmer and hunter.

Additionally, area hunters don’t have to look far for public land. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore alone contains more than 70,000 acres.

That said, high-priced hunting real estate often falls on private property.

Casier said one way to get access to that private property is to offer manual labor — especially when labor is a hot commodity in the summertime.

It’s not always that easy, however.

“We used to let people hunt on the farm,” Casier said. “It’s just a giant nightmare. We’ve been told to stay off our property. We’ve been called names.

“Then people don’t want to help us harvest. If someone helps us shake cherries, they get first shot.”

Casier said other arrangements have worked more favorably for all parties.

“The president of the Quality Deer Management Association hunts my property and he helps me out,” Casier said. “He’s been very, very responsible and has taken personal responsibility for his guests. They’ve been filling block tags — and they have no problem shooting deer. You get guys like that, and it’s no big deal, but then you have guys arguing about parking and who can hunt on the property.”

With that in mind, is it crazy to think a state-sponsored program could provide stability to such arrangements?

Kama Ross, the district forester, said the HAP also has the potential to help growers and motorists.

And not just because the landowner walks away with a chunk of change.

“The big positive I see is it lowers the deer herd in areas where it’s needed like our cherry orchards, apple orchards and vineyards — and the cars on the road will be better off, too,” Ross said.

Door prizes and giveaways will be among the offerings at the Conservation District’s annual meeting, which will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Contact the Leelanau Conservation District for further info at 256-9783.

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