Hunting is a time-honored tradition that doubles as a wildlife management tool and popular outdoor recreational activity. From gun to bow hunting, to using hunting blinds, to tracking, there are many ways for sportspersons to partake in this beloved activity and enjoy the competitive and conservation aspects.
Any time you hunt, you are responsible for your safety and the safety of those around you. Whether you’re a seasoned hunter or new to the sport, there are federal, state, and local laws and regulations that you should become familiar with to ensure you’re following the rules and taking part in this pastime as safely as possible. If you are just learning about hunting regulations for the first time or need a refresher, here are the essential hunting rules and regulations every hunter should know.
GENERAL HUNTING REQUIREMENTS
Most states in the U.S. require that every hunter have a hunting license and comply with the associated state game department requirements. This is because the states handle wildlife management within their borders. Depending on which state you’re hunting in, you may need multiple licenses for different game species.
When hunting migratory waterfowl, hunters must get both a state hunting license and a Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, or duck stamp. Additionally, hunters must have a Harvest Information Program number for every state in which they hunt migratory birds.
When you get your license, it can be in the form of a card, certificate, or both. To validate it, you must sign and date it. Your hunting license allows you to buy hunting tags and enter hunting lotteries, and it serves as proof of passing a hunter safety course. Safety courses are offered both in the classroom by certified instructors and online through wildlife agencies, so you can complete them via whichever method is most convenient for you.
Typically, hunting licenses can be purchased at any hunting and fishing retail outlet, including sporting goods stores. To find detailed license information and regulations for specific states, you can refer to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website. If you have unique circumstances in which you will chase game on a national wildlife shelter, you may be subject to additional requirements, including grants and user fees. When you purchase a hunting license, ammo, and various types of hunting gear, the fees and taxes you pay on these items help fund important aspects of the sport, including federal duck stamps and buying and maintaining lands for the wildlife you hunt.
PERMITTED HUNTING AREAS
Unless you own private property or have access to private property through family or friends, most hunters are allowed to hunt only in permitted areas, such as public lands and forest service lands. In some cases, private land is open to the public for hunting. National forests and grasslands provide abundant wildlife that is suitable for hunting. However, there may be off-limits areas. To understand which lands you are permitted to hunt on and for detailed boundary information, many states provide interactive hunting maps, as well as nearby recreational facilities, trails, and more to help you plan your hunting trip.
HUNTING ON PRIVATE PROPERTY
By doing a little research, you may be able to secure new hunting opportunities on private property. It’s always good practice to look into available records to confirm the area’s history, who owns the property, who neighbors the property, and who has access to it, to see if there’s a viable way to gain permission to hunt there. Permission to access property can be granted to specific individuals at the landowner’s discretion. You may wish to contact a landowner and request permission to access land to hunt and track wounded game. While some individuals rely upon verbal agreements, it is recommended that you obtain written permission from the landowner to protect you from prosecution for trespassing.
HUNTING ON PUBLIC LANDS
For many hunters, public lands offer some of the best hunting opportunities and experiences. For those who do not have their own private property to hunt on, public lands provide millions of acreage for hunters to engage in the sport.
What You Need to Hunt on Public Lands
Any hunter who wants to take advantage of hunting opportunities on public lands must have the required state license(s). Some public lands managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior also require additional permits and/or user fees, as well as proof that you’ve completed a hunter education course.
Where Can You Hunt on Public Lands?
From national parks and forests to wildlife refuges and wetland management districts, there are more than 400 areas managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that hunters can hunt on, along with lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Over 99% of BLM-managed lands are open to hunting and other recreational shooting activities.
Of course, to be absolutely sure you’re hunting in permitted areas, you should contact your local public lands management office. If you don’t have permission to hunt or venture into off-limit areas, you are trespassing and may be prosecuted. It’s also important to note that crossing private lands to access public lands is not permitted unless you get permission from the private landowner first.
What Animals Can You Hunt on Public Lands?
Public lands are teeming with wildlife that promise quality hunting opportunities. From small to big game, there is a wide range of species hunters are permitted to hunt on public lands. Because public lands are well-regulated, each park, preserve, or refuge determines what species, how many, and when you can hunt. This regulation ensures wildlife populations are controlled properly while considering hunting demand and public safety. By visiting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NPS, and BLM websites, you can find more detailed information about what animal species inhabit which areas and what you are legally allowed to hunt.
Hunting seasons are the specific times each year in which certain game animals can be hunted and harvested in designated areas, so you always want to be prepared with the right information for a safe and successful hunting season. In the U.S., each state sets its hunting seasons. The hunting of migratory birds, including ducks and geese, is managed by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies.
No matter which state you hunt in, hunting seasons for deer, duck, turkey, and other game species are referred to as either “open” or “closed.” When the hunting season for a particular wildlife species is open, it means it’s the time of year hunters may hunt this particular game. Hunting seasons typically correspond with when the animal population is at its maximum, avoiding peak breeding periods when wildlife are more vulnerable, and hunting could disrupt mating and affect population sizes.
Several factors determine open seasons, including mating, birthing, and migrating seasons. While the states control most hunting seasons and the surrounding regulations, the federal government oversees the hunting season for migratory waterfowl. The feds collaborate with the states to provide specific dates for hunting, and the states can choose whether to use the entire season, make it shorter, or divide it into sections.
When a hunting season is closed, this means certain wildlife cannot be hunted. Generally, closed seasons are intended to protect species during more vulnerable times, such as their breeding or birthing seasons. Additionally, hunting seasons typically end when game are at their peak reproductive period, population levels are low, or there are food shortages. Closed seasons are enforced by state and local conservation and wildlife entities. Hunting during these times is considered illegal hunting or poaching, and it is a punishable offense. If you are unsure when a hunting season begins or ends for a particular type of game, make sure you check before you head out.
Even well-intentioned hunters can get into trouble with the law if they aren’t familiar with the federal, state, and local regulations that apply to them. By understanding game laws and exercising common sense, every hunter can avoid making costly and potentially criminal violations. Here are some universal hunting violations that hunters should know, no matter where in the country they are hunting.
- Hunt without a valid license.
- Hunt or kill endangered animals.
- Chase wildlife or shoot before or after legal hunting seasons and hours.
- Use prohibited weapons, including explosives, machine guns, snare and pitfall traps, nets, and poison.
- Shoot from moving vehicles or aircraft.
- Bait with prohibited foods, decoys, or recorded calls.
- Trespass by leading wildlife on restricted land or private property that you do not own.
- Participate in canned hunting, in which animals are hunted in a confined area.
- Exceed bag limits.
- Fail to properly validate tags for big game animals.
- Fail to self-report mistakes such as shooting the wrong animal or killing two big game animals with one shot.
Additionally, some practices such as using spotlights to light deer are prohibited in certain states. When in doubt, always look into the state and local laws of the area in which you’re hunting.
Additionally, when you’re hunting on U.S. Forest Service land, some additional rules should be followed to avoid any violations. These include:
- Discharging a firearm is prohibited in or within 150 yards of a residence, developed recreation site, or any place where people are likely to be.
- Shooting across a Forest Service road or water bodies is prohibited.
- Shooting within or into any cave, mine, or open shaft is prohibited.
- Only portable hunting stands or blinds are allowed. You should check with your local ranger district for restrictions, time limits, and questions around DIY hunting blinds.
ETHICAL HUNTER RESPONSIBILITIES
While not legally required, hunters need to follow certain ethical standards and common courtesy. Taking the time to meet with involved parties before your hunt and ensuring you’re being a responsible hunter can go a long way. Not only can these actions help you avoid run-ins with the law, but they can allow you to avoid or mitigate issues that could have repercussions for your future hunting endeavors or fellow hunters down the road. Here are some general guidelines every hunter should strive to follow:
- As a courtesy to the neighboring landowners, contact the landowners next to where you will hunt to let them know when and where you will be hunting. This can help establish good relations and allow you to address any concerns they may have before you begin.
- If you’re hunting on or near someone’s private property, take the time to explain that you intend to follow the rules and regulations pertaining to your hunt, as well as all safety protocols.
- Plan your shooting directions and confirm the spot you’ve chosen to hunt in is safe and complies with the law, keeping in mind that shot pellets can travel beyond 500 feet.
- Pick up after yourself. It’s common courtesy to leave your hunting spot as clean as you found it by picking up empty shell casings and other litter.
- It’s essential to get permission from neighboring landowners to track and/or retrieve wounded game in more urban and suburban areas.
Even when hunters practice ethical hunting and go out of their way to ensure mutual understanding and follow the rules, conflicts can still happen. In some cases, these conflicts may not be resolved easily. If the parties involved are unable to resolve the issue on their own, it may be appropriate to contact the state’s wildlife agency or some other local entity to enable law enforcement authorities to help settle the dispute and find a resolution.
THE FINAL WORD
No matter how long you’ve been in the hunting game before you embark on your next hunting trip, it’s vital that you look into federal, state, and local laws. Taking the time to learn or brush up on the rules and regulations around hunting can save you from making costly mistakes, or worse, criminal violations. By being informed, taking the time to plan, and consulting with the appropriate landowners and entities, you can ensure a safer and more successful hunting trip. For new hunting blinds and accessories, shop the Shadow Hunter Blinds selection of premium hunting blinds and products.