You well know the liability associated with having guests on your site. Most times, invited guests have expectations about what their experience will entail and the level of risk they intend to accept. At certain times of the year, though, hunters on your property or your neighbors’ may significantly change that norm. Your year-round occupants and employees are probably aware of those changes, but are your guests? This month, we’re going to look at a few things that will help ensure that everyone can enjoy your camp’s property safely.
The state laws that govern hunting on public ground almost universally govern those activities on private property, including your camp. For example, Pennsylvania prohibits game hunting on Sundays, but allows Sunday hunting for groundhogs, coyotes, and crows. Generally, hunting hours are from a half hour before sunrise to a half hour after sunset with an exception again for coyotes, which can be hunted all night. So unless you’re operating a hunting preserve (which has its own rules), these rules and regulations apply to your property as well. Even if you don’t allow hunting on your property, hunts may be happening all around you. Being familiar with the regulations and tradi¬tions, and putting those prominently in front of your guests, helps everyone plan their activities with them in mind.
As far back as 2002 in “Building Principles,” I’ve championed the benefits of having a complete boundary survey of the property, explaining that this investment pays for itself and appreciates in value with time. But it’s hard to imagine needing to have well-marked and established boundaries more than during hunting season. Whether you allow hunting on your property or not, everyone should be able to tell when they enter or leave your property. The only way to make sure that’s so is by thoroughly marking your entire boundary; and the only way to know for sure that it’s correct is through a field survey by a professional licensed in your state. Each fall, travel the boundary by foot, ATV, etc., and clear it of brush and fallen debris. If you do this during deer bow-hunting season (usually late summer and early autumn), you can assure yourself that nobody is setting up tree stands on your property without permission and also see where your neighbors are setting up. You can discover neighbors who are encroaching with their own post signs and take that opportunity to clear up any confusion about property limits. Make sure that your boundary posts include the organization’s name, a contact’s name, and a telephone number, and that they’re clearly visible from one to the next. Don’t provide an excuse for trespassing.
For Your Non-Hunting Guests and Their Safety
Many folks wonder what a camp is like when the campers are home and the property is largely vacant, and that makes it a very inviting place to visit during those times. It can be very restful and insightful for them. At the same time, though, the environment itself is different from the summertime, and some important differences may escape them. Even if hunting is prohibited altogether on the property, that may not be the case around the property. Camp visitors need to be informed and educated about what may be happening in and around camp. Consider the following.
Hunting is an integral part of most ecosystems with people being the ultimate predator in that environment. Active management of all sorts of wildlife helps to keep populations healthy by reducing species-transmitted diseases that can decimate them. This management is a stated goal of every state’s wildlife regulatory body, and there are resources, including programs and written materials, that can help convey this in a regionally specific context. Contact your wildlife conservation office to find out what is available for you to develop meaningful materials and a management program on your property.
Every year at each trail parking area, the National Recreation Area near my home posts signs that say: “Our hunters wear orange, and SO SHOULD YOU!” Non-hunters are understandably unaware of hunters’ presence afield or how important it is for everybody to be highly visible. Typically, accidental hunting shootings are the result of mistaken targets due to poor visibility. So while the responsibility for taking a sure shot always rests with the shooter, “fault” is seldom much comfort to the victim. Non-hunters aren’t likely to have brought these high-fashion items, so are your guest cabins and lodges stocked with inexpensive hunter-orange hats and vests? Do you post safety reminders in common areas like shower houses and the dining hall?
For Your Hunting Guests
Having decided to allow game manage¬ment on your property, the next most important question is: “Who should you allow to hunt?” The best answer is those you know personally who have a personal stake and interest in your camp’s safe and profitable operation. Farmers will often permit hunters on their otherwise dormant property and harvested fields, but it’s unheard of to allow a total stranger. It’s well known that they’re most inclined to invite or permit hunters who have helped bailing hay, mending fences, posting the boundary, etc. This personal investment on both parties’ parts helps to define the relationship and build the mutual respect that’s so important when dealing with firearms and other hunting tools. Consider allowing (and expecting!) prospective hunters to help at camp to get to know them, and let them get to know you and the property.
Next, farmers allow hunters who have demonstrated good judgment when it comes to shooting, and that is often a progressive building of trust. Typically, the safest type of hunting is small ground game like rabbits because shots are always directed toward the ground and are close range. Hunters that show proper consideration for their host’s property are next permitted to hunt birds like pheasants, doves, and grouse. Spent shot raining down on the farmer’s house, barn, or outbuildings is a fast ticket to being es¬corted from the property with no return ticket. Like a parent grooming a young¬ster into more responsibility, the farmer may eventually permit the hunter to use high-powered rifle or shotgun slugs for deer hunting. Does your camp have any sort of “getting to know you” procedure like this? Both parties can benefit if the relationship is grown carefully and in mutual respect.
Pennsylvania prohibits “. . . hunting for, shooting at, chasing, or disturbing wildlife within 150 yards of any occupied residence, camp, industrial or commercial building, farm house or farm building, or school or playground without the permission of the occupants.” (Emphasis added.) As the landlord, you have the authority to abridge this rule, but at the same time, you have the responsibility to provide clear and definitive guidance to hunters using your property. So along with the map that shows your property boundary, your hunting guests should receive a map that clearly defines where you will allow hunting and where it is prohibited. For example, camp’s horses may not be on the property off-season, and this may be the ideal time to take hole-digging groundhogs from the pasture. Your barn’s hayloft could provide excellent shelter for the sportsmen/women, but only you can grant that permission. At the same time, the camper cabin village may NEVER be a good place to hunt (even for damaging vermin like porcupines and groundhogs), and a map that clearly shows the limits of the 150-yard safety zone makes the rules for using the property clear. Why not put up temporary or unobtrusive posts to define your safety zones? Fluorescent surveyor’s tape on the perimeter of trees will also help make sure that the property’s being used as you intend.
Finally, your camp must have written, hard-and-fast procedures for your hunting guests and your staff. Everybody has to know the rules of the road, and there can be no mistake on what those are or what the consequences are for violating them. Beyond that, your camp is already probably a legal entity of some sort, and extra coverage for the business just makes sense. These procedures go hand in hand with the relationship building described previously, but they provide an extra step in formalizing how things are to work. Among other things, your camp should provide:
- A written permit to hunt issued to each hunter that lists the hunter’s name, an expiration date, and any restrictions (such as “no weekend hunting”). The hunter should be required to carry it whenever hunting on the property.
- Instructions on who to contact to arrange hunting dates and locations on the property. The camp should maintain a list of who’s on the property all the time.
- Instructions on what to do if there is any sort of accident, such as property damage or an injury.
- How to interact with other people on the property, hunters and non-hunters alike. For example, invited guests may encounter someone on the property who is NOT invited. Whether they’re tracking wounded game or outright trespassing, your guests should know what the camp’s policy is and what you want to happen if they encounter that sort of situation.
Stewardship includes wise and careful use of all of the resources your property has to offer, and that might include hunting and trapping. By planning for and actively participating in how that affects your property, hunters and non-hunters alike can enjoy the beauty of camp all year long.
Rick Stryker is a professional engineer with a particular passion for helping camps with infrastructure, planning, and regulatory issues. He can always be reached at email@example.com  or 570.828.4004.
Originally published in the 2013 November/December Camping Magazine