Reducing Risk Through Hunting Liability Insurance

The last thing many of us want to think about when going out on our lake to fish or entering the woods on a hunt is the potential that exists for accidents to occur.  Furthermore, even when we observe safety standards and practices, accidents do occur. While other forms of recreation generate far more accidents per activity (including fatalities), hunting and fishing could generate far more inherent liability than most people’s homeowner’s policies will cover.  Therefore, it is recommended that all hunting clubs and landowners take steps to reduce their exposure and protect their personal and/or family assets from these liability risks.

As more landowners began recognize the revenue potential from leasing their land for hunting purposes in the 1960’s and 1970’s, more private land began to be hunted and leased.  The first hunting liability policies began to be issued in the 1980’s as more people began to hunt on leased private lands (thereby increasing the landowner’s liability).  In some instances, landowners and hunting club members attempt to reduce their liability exposure by having their lessees/other members sign liability waivers.  However, the liability coverage afforded by these waivers is limited and should always be combined with a hunting liability policy.

What does it cover?

The three highest risk activities associated with hunting are treestands, ATV use, firearms.  Recent estimates from the International Hunters Education Association estimate the most common type of hunting-related accidents are related to falls (www.ihea.com).  ATV accidents generally account for the second-most injuries associated with hunting club activities.  Only about 1,000 firearm-related hunting club accidents occur annually and approximately 10% of those are fatal.  Most of these firearm accidents occur from the failure of the shooter to identify the target.

Generally, all policies cover exposure for the insured parties on these high risk activities.  Standard policies, recommended by many insurance agents, provide $1 million per occurrence general liability coverage and $2 million general aggregate coverage, with minimal or no deductible.  Additional coverage often includes:

  • $100,000 damage or fire legal liability;
  • $5,000 medical supplement;
  • Member-to-Member Coverage;
  • Premises Based Coverage; and
  • Guest Liability Coverage.

Policies may also often cover some limited watercraft use, hunting dogs, electronics, cell phones, and electronics.  Finally, it is important to understand all exclusions that may apply on each specific policy.  For instance, most policies exclude the operation of commercial hunting operations and guide services.  Some policies fire liability coverage may only cover timber damage, while other policies would cover cabins and houses.  Other policies may provide strict definitions on the coverage afforded to ATV use for “hunting activities.”

How much does it cost?

Insurance premiums for hunting liability insurance have decreased dramatically since their peak in the early 1990’s.  These annual premiums for hunting liability insurance are commonly based on the acreage associated with the club.  A general rule, regardless of issuing company, annual premiums are approximately 10 to 15 cents per acre for land and clubs over 1,000 acres.  Smaller clubs and lands under 1,000 acres generally have a set minimum fee of $200 to $300.  Hunting clubs on industrial forestland generally enjoy even more reduced rates, since the landowner obtains the policy across the entire landbase and passes those savings along to the clubs.

Landowners may require the hunting clubs on their property to obtain, maintain, and provide proof of hunting liability insurance as a condition of the lease.  The landowner may also require the hunting club to list the landowner “additional insured” on the policy to protect them from the activities of the club.  If the landowner purchases the policy, the inverse is true.  The landowner can require a list of all hunting club members from the club to list as “additional insured” on the policy.  This option is appealing to many landowners because they can insure a policy is written and maintained for the property, add additional family and friends on the policy as “additional insured”, and maintain the policy in the absence of a hunting club.  In this landowner-held policy option, the cost of these premiums can be passed along to the hunting within the per acre price of the lease.

Southern Forestry Consultants and Wiregrass Ecological Associates offer wildlife, fisheries, and land management services to meet the needs of your forest, pond, or hunting club.  We have experience and expertise leasing properties for landowners and managing leases of all sizes across the southeast.  If you have any questions about these services or the liability associated with your land, lessees, or hunting club, call Austin at 229.246.9651.

NOTE: Similar to all other insurance policies, you should consult your insurance agent on the levels of coverage and options available to protect the level of exposure unique to your club and land.  These options may differ between properties and states, as the listing of admitted vs. non-admitted carriers may change.  Additional information regarding the financial-strength and issuer credit ratings of each insurance company (i.e., their ability to pay your potential claim) can be found through the US-based rating agency, A.M. Best (www.ambest.com).

Gopher Tortoise Conservation: From Hoover Chickens to Keystone Species

During his 1928 presidential campaign, Herbert Hoover used the campaign slogan of “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” as a way of promising prosperity to the American citizens. However, Hoover’s presidency was ultimately defined by the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, which led to more empty rather than full pots and garages. The dire economic times led many in the south to mockingly refer to gopher tortoises as “Hoover Chickens,” since they were the most abundant source of food available for their pots. However, unlike typical game animals (e.g. white-tailed deer), gopher tortoises require very specific habitat conditions and reproduce slowly. Ultimately, wildlife biologists also discovered that gopher tortoises perform an important and disproportionately unique role in their ecosystem; prompting many to refer to the gopher tortoise as a “keystone species”. Although it is now illegal to hunt or possess gopher tortoises, other threats to the species have arisen and impacted its conservation status throughout its range.

Gopher tortoises are residents of deep and well-drained sandy soils throughout the Coastal Plain and have adapted over time to the fire-maintained longleaf pine ecosystem. Historically, lightning and Native Americans were the primary catalysts for these growing season fires in the longleaf pine ecosystem. Forest managers and wildlife biologists now use prescribed fire to mimic these natural fires in longleaf, loblolly, and slash pine habitats. Most wildlife populations change in response to the changes in vegetation due to fire, rather than from direct mortality to the fire. The gopher tortoise is no exception, as it will seek refuge in burrows (along with other species) from the heat and smoke produced by the fire. However, frequent fires and sparse canopy closure in this ecosystem promote an abundance of native grass and herbaceous species upon which the gopher tortoise depends. It has been estimated the gopher tortoise feeds on over 300 different herbaceous species found in fire-maintained habitats. In the absence of bison and wild horses, the gopher tortoise has been considered by some the most significant grazing animal within Florida’s pine-grassland ecosystem. Gopher tortoises may therefore provide a crucial form of seed dispersal for many native plants. As a result of their need for this fire-dependent grass and herbaceous species understory, the presence of gopher tortoises is often seen as an important indicator of optimal habitat conditions in these fire-maintained communities. While gopher tortoises most often occupy these pine and oak sandhill habitats, they can also be found in dry hammocks, coastal dunes and prairies, mixed pine-hardwoods, and even pine flatwoods and scrub.

The tortoise uses the deep sandy soils to dig burrows for thermoregulation, reproduction, and refuge from fire and predation. Gopher tortoises use multiple burrows which can extend over 40 feet in length and 10 feet in depth. During burrow construction and maintenance, tortoises bring sand from the end chamber and deposits it at the mouth of the burrow, known as the apron. When the end chamber is near the water table, this sand is often filled with nutrients that have leached into the water table. As the apron weathers, these nutrients are made available to plants across the site. The gopher tortoise also keeps this apron clear of vegetation to allow an open area for basking in the sun, early detection of predators, and an area to dig and deposit eggs. The subterranean burrows of this “keystone species” have also been shown to support over 350 other species, including numerous threatened and endangered species.

Gopher tortoise population declines associated with human population growth and land use changes have been noted across its historic range since the early 1980’s. Once estimated at 90 million acres across the southeast, the gopher tortoise’s optimal longleaf pine forest habitat now comprises approximately three (3) million acres. Additionally, increases in habitat fragmentation, conversion, destruction, and urbanization have had significant impacts on gopher tortoise populations. As a result, gopher tortoises were listed as a federally threatened species in Mississippi, Louisiana, and where they occur in Alabama counties west of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers in 1987. The species was recently federally listed as a candidate species in the eastern portion of its range (including South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and the remaining eastern counties in Alabama). As a “candidate species,” the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has indicated they have sufficient information on the biological status and threats to the gopher tortoise to propose listing (as threatened or endangered) but is currently precluded from listing due to higher priorities. Forestry and forest management generally receive agricultural exemptions from current impacts to gopher tortoises. However, residential and commercial development activities require avoidance and relocation measures of differing intensities based on state regulations. For example, the state of Georgia currently has no permitting process but does offer conservation recommendations and guidance for avoiding impacts to gopher tortoises. The state of Florida has a detailed regulatory and permitting process for any non-exempt activities that impact gopher tortoise burrows. This process generally involves the survey, excavations and relocation of gopher tortoises by registered Authorized Agents to certified recipient sites throughout the state. In the federally threatened, western-portion of the gopher tortoise range, development activities are further encumbered by the Endangered Species Act and require coordination and approval (generally through a Biological Opinion) with the USFWS. If the gopher tortoise is ultimately federally listed by the USFWS in the eastern portion of its range,

The USFWS estimates that 80% of gopher tortoise habitat is held by private or corporate landowners. Therefore, landowners and land managers can play a major role in the success of this species and ultimately its need for federal (USFWS threatened or endangered species) listing in the eastern portion of its range.   In June of 2013, the USFWS released a Range-Wide Conservation Strategy for the Gopher Tortoise1. By implementing these conservation strategies and programs, landowners and state agencies can address the immediate and identifiable threats to the gopher tortoise. Proactively addressing the needs of the gopher tortoise prior to regulatory requirements being enacted can minimize the recovery costs associated with listing, provide more flexible management options, and reduce restrictive land use policies if the species is listed. Ultimately and ideally, by reducing threats and stabilizing populations through proactive conservation measures the need to federally list the gopher tortoise in the eastern portion of its range could be eliminated. We have come a long way in our understanding and appreciation of the importance of the gopher tortoise in the southern forest ecosystems since the Great Depression and Herbert Hoover’s presidential administration. As the conservation status of this species continues to evolve, private landowners and land managers will play a major role in defining its legacy.