From the Appalachian Mountains in the East to the slopes of the Rockies in the West, America’s public lands offer some of the nation’s top hunting opportunities. With the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other agencies managing or controlling much of these public lands, the fact is that most of the best hunting turf often can be accessed on foot.
Get out and go for a hike to see what’s beyond that ridge or on the other side of that distant gap. If you decide not to go, there are also miles of roads that accommodate various types of vehicles, but note that some are closed during winter or have other travel restrictions in place that could require you to walk or make other plans. Do your public land research before you leave home and you will have a better experience—and find more options for places to hunt.
"For many hunters, federal public lands are the only lands they have access to for hunting, and we are blessed to have millions of acres open to hunting,” said Susan Recce, NRA-ILA Director of Conservation, Wildlife and Natural Resources. “The National Rifle Association has been working for decades to ensure that hunting opportunities on our public lands are accessible, protected and enhanced."
Who's in Charge? First, anyone wanting to hunt on public land will need to determine which agency controls or manages the given land. Remember: Not all public lands are the same—or fall under the same restrictions.
• U.S. Forest Service A division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the USFS normally places yellow signs with black wording along its property boundaries. This federal agency manages and protects 154 national forests and 20 grasslands in 44 states and Puerto Rico for a total of more than 193 million acres. It has been active since 1905 and most of the public is aware of its public relations campaigns about forest fires and littering featuring “Smokey the Bear” and “Woodsie” the wise owl—powerful communication tools.
The USFS estimates more than 160 million people visit USFWS-controlled forests and grasslands each year. It also estimates that outdoor recreation on these public lands contributes more than $13 billion dollars to our nation’s economy and supports more than 205,000 jobs annually. Most of these lands are in rural regions.
A visit to www.fs.fed.us/ will also help you find a forest and obtain a map to guide you. This agency has great maps to direct you to the action and trail heads. These can be found online or purchased at most USFS regional headquarters.
• Bureau of Land Management BLM lands span more than 245 million acres in and west of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. The BLM’s mission includes managing public land and the resources located there for a variety of uses, including livestock grazing, recreation and timbering. Hunting falls into the vast recreation category. The agency’s National Landscape Conservation System includes 221 Wilderness Areas that span more than 8.7 million acres. Take a hike on most BLM parcels and you’ll soon find you have the place to yourself.
• U.S. Army Corps of Engineers While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) first had a mission to oversee and operate the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, the agency’s mission has shifted. Today, the USACE has other missions. Flood control is huge part of its scope. To accomplish this, the agency uses more than 600 dams. Most of those are found in and along major rivers.
Hunters often overlook USACE lands for hunting, but much of the land below and above those dams, sometimes entire lakes and the banks above the blockage, is often controlled by the USACE. These lands often offer excellent waterfowl, deer and turkey hunting. Currently the USACE also reports managing about 24 million acres on or around military reservations. Some of that turf is open to hunting but unfortunately many military bases have mostly closed their gates to hunters since the 9-11 attacks. Security first
• U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service If you have still not found a place to hunt, then look at America’s National Wildlife Refuge System, which, by the way, is supported by hunters’ dollars. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages this system of preserved, undeveloped lands with boundaries generally marked by a small white sign with a blue goose. National Wildlife Refuges span more than 850 million acres, and the system just opened more than a dozen areas to hunting. This means more hunting opportunities on National Wildlife Refuges in Colorado, Louisiana, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. Better news is that much of the expanded hunting opportunity involved opening areas to hunting of big and upland game species.
While those federal agencies manage and control access to a huge chunk of America, it is important to note that state agencies, such as the Pennsylvania Game Commissionand the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, set the season regulations and hunting dates on big and small game species. Sometimes state agencies can also control hunter access to public lands because of special wildlife management programs or regional projects. In most cases the roads, trails and public access—plus methods of access—are set by the federal agency that manages the land.
The truly good news is that the federal agencies have spent a lot of money developing maps, and those maps can lead to great hunting opportunities.
Obtaining Maps The great news is that there are many acres of public land open for hunters’ use. The bad news is that in recent years in some areas a few less than scrupulous landowners have spent lots of money, or tried other tactics, to keep the hunters and the public off public lands. Hunters have found themselves charged with trespassing because the landowner says the boundary line is there—or over there. You need to be able to accurately determine the boundary to stay legal.
First, it’s important to learn to read standard topo maps, especially if you like to hunt out of state or travel often to new areas to hunt. Maps let you know what is over the next ridge, where access points are, and where boundaries are located. Maps can also pinpoint logging roads and hiking trails. In addition to maps, fences, ditches and other manmade structures can sometimes help you determine the boundary.
A top map source that numerous hunters use to determine the boundaries and public land is mytopo.com in Billings, Mont. The maps can be customized to show boundaries and include the names of adjacent landowners, plus show roads and public trails. The maps are affordable, easy to custom design, and will be shipped to you within hours or days after you submit an order. You can also call 877-587-9004 to discuss your options. I know the company works overtime during late summer and early fall to print and ship requested and customized maps to hunters across North America in time for hunting season.
Other map sources that are accurate and widely available include DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteers. Maps are available by state, cost around $20, and a page in the front of most atlases lists public hunting lands in that state with details on available species to hunt. These atlases also cover roads and hiking trails. The pages are also good at providing details on public lands.
Once you leave the road, it can be difficult to determine where you are if you are relying solely on paper maps. Thus, more and more hunters are relying on hand-held navigation aids like those from Garmin. Take note that some Garmin GPS handheld units permit uploading a program named HuntView (costs approximately $80) that shows precise public and private land boundaries.
Another simple device that can help you return to the trailhead or your vehicle is the Bushnell BackTrack GPS that retails for around $65. It’s easy to operate and compact enough to drop into a shirt pocket.
America has more public land than you could possibly hunt across in a lifetime afield. You just need to know some basics to enjoy those opportunities.
Understanding Gates One point that confuses some hunters are gates across roads. In most cases you can tell that the sturdy metal gate was built by the government because it’s brown or yellow, elaborately designed and has street or regulatory signs affixed. The “road closed” signs on USFS lands, for example, often mean you can walk and ride a horse or mountain bike behind the gate on the road. Motorized vehicles like motorcycles and ATVs, however, would generally be illegal to operate behind the closed gates.
One national forest in the West I recently visited had miles of ATV and off-road trails, but huge boulders and metal posts concreted into the ground restricted access on some trails, allowing for only smaller ATVs and standard motorcycles. The full-size four-seater side-by-side model I was operating was not permitted on most of the trails. I could find no explanation why.
Some remote roads on USFS lands and on other federal tracts could be open during hunting season, so hunters need to contact the controlling agency, and district office, to determine the facts and stay legal. It’s important to note that designated wilderness areas often have more restrictive regulations. Read up, obey the laws and enjoy the hunt.