Keith Costley: New Missouri program leases private land to provide public hunting, fishing access

Rabbit hunters meet with the landowner and run their beagles on MRAP land near Marceline. COURTESY | David Stonner, MDC

My hunting partner and I may have lost our deer and turkey hunting lease for the common good. 

I’ve hunted Missouri whitetails, mostly on private land, for more than 40 years, and now — for the first time ever — I haven’t an inkling where I’ll be hunting when the firearms season begins in November. My home and 20 acres is on the market because of downsizing, so the possibility of hunting deer on my place is iffy at best.

For the first dozen years, I hunted deer with in-laws and friends in Ozark County; for the past 30 years, I’ve hunted Nodaway County in northwest Missouri.

At the end of last year’s season, the lessor informed Brett and me in a phone conversation that we’d need to find another place to hunt. We asked the landowner if we’d done anything to rub him the wrong way; if we had, we wanted to make it right. 

“No, not at all,” he said. “You boys have been excellent lessees.”

And then he dropped the bomb we didn’t see coming.

“I was asked by the Missouri Department of Conservation if I’d be interested in leasing my land to them,” he said. “I need to keep my options open.”

After we expressed our gratitude to the landowner for allowing us to hunt his property for several years, we said our goodbyes, and that was that.

Or was it?

Our newfound animosity against the conservation department got the better of our emotions.

Our thoughts? If MDC leases the land we’ve hunted for years, then the “big guy” would be running the “little guy” out. We felt like we were being bullied, smoked off the land. And this is the thanks we get for paying our taxes to the MDC? In a way, we felt betrayed. 

In time, we cooled off and realized that if we lost our lease to the department, the land would benefit the public.

If the landowner leases to the MDC, he’ll receive considerably more money than what we’re able to pay him. We hold no resentment against him. After all, business is business.

The Missouri Outdoor Recreational Access Program — established in 2015 — offers payments through the MDC to private landowners for public access to hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing. Other states are doing this, too. Kansas has more than 150,000 acres of private land open to hunting under its Walk-in Hunting Area program.

MRAP offers financial incentives for wildlife habitat improvement on enrolled lands. The department says the program focuses on enrolling lands in the northern portion of the state, where public access opportunities are generally more limited.

The program is a bargain for property owners because they have the opportunity to “share their land with others” and “generate additional income off the land,” said Jeff Esely, MRAP manager.

Esely told me MDC launched a pilot program last year in northeast Missouri on seven properties and enrolled more than 1,600 acres. This fall, MDC plans to enroll up to 10,000 acres.

Esely said that from June 1-July 15, the department received roughly 50 applications for the 2016 program. He also pointed out that even though MRAP is concentrating on leasing northern Missouri lands, the entire state is being considered.

Landowners can choose from six access options and will likely earn $15 to $25 per acre for each year of participation.

Funded largely by a  $1.1 million three-year federal grant, MRAP lands will be open to foot traffic only. All area users are to register at designated property entry points. Parking generally occurs along roadsides.

Esely encourages anyone who is interested in the program to monitor on a regular basis because the website is in continual change. By Oct. 1, detailed information concerning the locations and boundaries of most MRAP properties should be online, Esely said.

Who knows? We may very well end up hunting deer on an MRAP lease this fall.

Time will tell.


Keith R. Costley lives in Joplin and is an avid hunter and fisherman. 

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