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Conservation, Economics, and Management of Hunting on Private Land: An International, National and California Analysis


Privately owned land accounts for significant areas of land internationally, nationally, and in California. In the U.S. and elsewhere, private land tends to support high levels of biodiversity because land with more productive natural resources was settled and privatized first. These lands, which are integral to conservation goals, are often the most vulnerable to habitat degradation and loss through changes in land-use and fragmentation. In 1930, Aldo Leopold encouraged the development of an incentive scheme to better conserve private lands in the U.S. where hunters would pay landowners for access to conserved wildlife habitat and game populations that could be sustainably harvested. Although a wide body of literature has discussed this approach, much of the research is either theoretical or limited to particular regions and these studies have rarely tested for an explicit connection to whether conservation is ultimately improved as a result of paid hunting.

The goal of this dissertation is to evaluate the economic, conservation and management aspects of hunting on private land internationally, nationally, and in California. The first chapter uses a case study approach to explore the environmental and economic issues surrounding hunting in the context of Spain and California. The study found that increased game management rights in Spain appears to yield improved economic return, but at an environmental cost.

The second chapter evaluates the scale, distribution and conservation aspects of spending to access private land for fishing, hunting, and wildlife-watching in the United States. This study found that that approximately 440 million acres of private land, an estimated 22% of the contiguous land area of the U.S. and 33% of all private land in the U.S., are either leased or owned for wildlife-associated recreation. Much of these lands are private rangelands and forestlands. Land utilized for hunting accounted for 81% of that total, while land utilized for fishing and wildlife-watching, although comparatively small, likely includes riparian zones and areas with high environmental or amenity values. Hunters own or lease properties of larger size classes than anglers or wildlife-watchers, providing a possible economic incentive for maintaining large unfragmented properties that provide a variety of conservation benefits. Results show that Americans annually spend an estimated $814 million in day-use fees, $1.48 billion for long-term leases, and $14.8 billion to own private land primarily for wildlife-associated recreation. Hunting, in particular big game hunting, comprises some of the largest contributions to payments for wildlife-associated recreational use on private land. This finding suggests that hunting may be an important market-based mechanism to maintain large unfragmented parcels of wildlife habitat.

Chapter 3 utilizes interviews with a random sample of landowners in California to evaluate conservation practices associated with hunting enterprises. This study found relatively low adoption of hunting enterprises among landowners, and that there were mixed conservation outcomes associated with hunting. Landowners who enrolled in the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Private Land Management program, which provides enhanced game management rights to landowners in exchange for habitat improvement practices, performed the most comprehensive habitat improvement practices, including riparian zone restoration and adjustment of grazing practices to enhance cover and forage resources for wildlife. Many other landowners, however, earned some income from hunting, but either did not implement additional conservation practices to enhance wildlife habitat or performed practices that could cause some ecological problems, such as planting of feed crops that can create openings for invasive noxious weeds to be established on a property. This study found significant opportunities in California to not only increase adoption of hunting enterprises, but to engage in educational efforts to encourage ecologically-friendly wildlife management practices as a way to enhance both revenue from hunting enterprises and conservation outcomes.

The final chapter focuses on the development of methods to better understand the population characteristics of the Columbian black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) in order to improve harvest recommendations. Using camera-traps on a 2,500 acre private ranch in San Benito County, California, the study estimates the density and sex ratios of deer by using a Bayesian spatial mark-resight model. It also evaluates the effect of using bait in developing population estimates. The study found that deer densities on the property are estimated to be 9.9 (SE 0.91) individuals/km2, and that antlered bucks make up only 11% (SE 1%) of the population. Bait increased encounter rates of deer by a factor of 3.7, showing that the use of bait can help reduce the length of time that cameras must be operational and may create more precise population estimates due to increased detectability of deer.

In conclusion, this dissertation found the game management rights for hunting were important for economic return from hunting on private land, but without regulation may result in negative environmental impacts. Across the United States, hunting contributes significantly to landowner income, especially to properties of larger size classes in rangeland and forestry habitats, which suggests that hunting provides an economic incentive to maintain large unfragmented properties. In the context of California, programs that give landowners greater game management rights in exchange for habitat improvement practices resulted in benefits for landowners and the environment. Finally, this dissertation has developed a statistical model that can be utilized to evaluate population parameters for one of the most economically important game species in California. In sum, recreational hunting can provide income to the private landowner and with the appropriate regulations, education and management, can incentivize the enhancement and maintenance of wildlife habitat on private land.

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