Trespassers! What should you do?

 By Charles Alsheimer

Nearly every state deals with trespassing differently. In some states, placing posted signs on land is not required because all private land is considered posted. In other states, posted signs in accordance with the law must be in place to insure hunters get the message.
Trespassing on private lands has been an issue for decades. Though talked about, little has been written about how to deal with individuals who “step over the line” in their quest to harvest a trophy whitetail. The Wisconsin shootings on Nov. 21, 2004, forever changed the way some hunters and landowners handle trespassing issues. It was on this day that a confronted trespasser opened fire on hunters on a private hunting club. When the last shot finally echoed through the woods, six members of the hunting club lie dead, with two others wounded. In the mind of many, it was the worst day the American deer-hunting community has ever seen. No one will ever know for certain exactly what made Chai Vang snap and shoot eight hunters. According to testimony from the surviving witnesses and shooter, harsh words were exchanged over Vang’s trespassing before the shooting began. Vang felt threatened by the landowners and opened fire. Hindsight is always 20/20, but by most accounts, it is clear that lives could have been spared if cooler heads had prevailed on that fateful day.


In case you haven’t noticed, there has been a paradigm shift taking place in the whitetail woods. When I was kid 50 years ago, no one I knew posted their property for hunting purposes. Locals, whether they owned land or not, pretty much hunted wherever they wanted. Oh, a few hunters asked permission to hunt someone’s land, but such requests were rare in my part of western New York State. This is no longer the case. Most private property in prime deer country is now posted for hunting purposes for a host of reasons. Gone are the days when you could park your car and head to the woods for a day of hunting. Back in the late ’80s while on a photography/deer hunting trip to Texas, I hooked up with legendary whitetail manager, Al Brothers. I’ll never forget him saying to me, “Charlie, when people realize that white-tailed deer have a value, everything changes, from land usage to deer management.” This has certainly been the case when it comes to land usage. Today, more and more hunters are recognizing the value of whitetails and what it takes to have quality deer and a quality hunting experience. As a result, many hunters are purchasing land while others are leasing prime whitetail habitat for hunting. To help protect their investment, they must post their property to insure that their goals are met. Unfortunately, there is no simple approach to dealing with trespassers.


Nearly every state deals with trespassing differently. In some states, placing posted signs on land is not required because all private land is considered posted. In other states, posted signs in accordance with the law must be in place to insure hunters get the message. By way of example, in my home state of New York, landowners must have highly visible posted signs (minimum of 11 inches by 11 inches containing the words Warning or Posted with the landowner’s name) no more than 660 feet apart around the property’s boundaries. In Alabama, the regulations are a bit different. According to Sergeant Rusty Morrow of the Alabama wildlife and freshwater fisheries enforcement, “all private land is considered posted to hunting, so trespassing during hunting season is called hunting without permission. When lands are posted to prohibit hunting trespassers, trespassing is treated as a misdemeanor.” Here in New York, the maximum fine for a first-time trespasser is $250 and up to 15 days in jail. In Alabama, first-offense trespassing carries a $250 fine plus court costs and possible loss of hunting privileges for one year. Because the fines are so small, law enforcement emphasizes the need to stay cool, calm, collected and civil when dealing with trespassers. New York State Region 8 wildlife director Sean Hanna told me, “Always approach a trespasser on an even keel with a level head. Start by asking them if they saw the posted signs. The key is that the landowner exhibits the best possible demeanor when dealing with a trespasser, otherwise the situation runs the risk of getting ugly. If the trespasser will not provide you with their identification, try to get a good description of them and their vehicle and plate number. If you wish to prosecute, the collected information should be turned over to law enforcement.”  


Dealing with trespassers is the ugly side of land and deer management. In its most basic form, trespassing is stealing, plain and simple, especially when the perpetrator knows you are growing something he wants – quality deer. Regardless of the state where hunting property is located, trespassing is a problem all landowners deal with. Some do it better than others. Craig and Neil Dougherty operate a state-of-the-art whitetail research facility in western New York State. Prior to their ownership, the 500-acre property was hunted heavily by the locals. When they obtained it and began to manage the land for better habitat and better deer, they had to come to grips with the problem of trespassers. “Basically, we have a two-step program for dealing with trespassers,” Craig said. “During the first two years, we basically warned those we caught trespassing because we knew there was a legitimate possibility the hunters had permission from the previous landowner and were unaware the land had changed hands. Two years is more than enough time to get the word out, and anyone we caught trespassing after this period of time we prosecuted. “When I approach a trespasser I do so in a calm manner and begin by asking them what they are doing. If they ask why, I then ask for ID. If I’m comfortable with who they are, I try to end the conversation as soon as possible. “Once I have ID, I ask them politely to leave, contact the CO (conservation officers) or sheriff and let the law handle the issue. The important thing is to file the complaint, let the authorities handle it and then follow through by pressing charges. All too often people make the mistake of not pressing charges. “If the guy does not provide you with ID, you need to put distance between you and him because in most cases he has a gun. After you get away from him, go into scramble mode by getting a good physical description of the perpetrator, his car make and plate number, then turn the information over to the law. The bottom line is to always approach a trespasser in a civil manner as opposed to being confrontational.” Kevin Haight of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., has been managing his property for deer for more than 10 years and has had more than is share of run-ins with trespassers. “Basically, we began by trying to be good guys. Our approach was to merely ask the trespassers to leave and hope we would be done with them. This approach didn’t work. The only way we’ve had success with trespassers is by making an example of everyone we catch. We’ve developed a reputation of being landowners who will not allow people going on land illegally, so the word gets out. “On the advice of the local COs and State Troopers, we also put our posted signs six feet high, 50 feet apart. I realize that this might seem like overkill because it is far more than what New York law requires, but it has helped us immensely. “One of the things I do is communicate my feeling regarding trespassing in a polite way so that potential trespassers know where I stand and that the land is posted. We don’t have any tricks we use; we just stay on top of things and make sure we are present. When hunters know you are around, trespassing decreases proportionately.” When my wife and I purchased our farm in 1973, we didn’t post. This was in part because I never believed in it. I had grown up on one of the farms that border us, and none of our neighbors posted for hunting when I was a kid, so it was foreign to me. As hunting became more and more popular, I began encountering more and more hunters on our property. I realized I had to do something; otherwise, I’d never be able to accomplish my goals of having better deer and better hunting. So, as a last resort, the posted signs went up. In the early 1990s, I began to aggressively manage our farm for both quality deer and quality hunting. This required more than just posting because, even with the posted signs, I still had three or four trespassing violations occurring each deer season. When they occurred, my approach was to just ask the trespassers to leave. Unfortunately, I found that this wasn’t working. To insure that hunters obeyed my posting wishes, I composed a very polite letter and sent it to all landowners who bordered our farm. In the letter, I explained that I was embarking on a new form of deer management, specifically quality deer management. I also asked them to let any of their hunters know of my rules. Initially, the letter caused quite a bit of chatter among the locals. No one discussed it with me personally, but the word got out. To keep my rules fresh in their minds, I’ve sent out a follow-up letter every third year. This approach worked well, but not nearly as well as I had hoped. Only when I began prosecuting the trespassers did the trespassing leak stop. It’s not something I wanted to do, but something that had to happen. Here’s how it all came about. It was a cold, clear November day, well into our fifth year of a quality deer management program. I was hunting in a favorite stand on the north end of our farm. About an hour after daylight, I heard two shots ring out very close to my stand. I knew the shots had to be on our land, so I collected my gear and went to inspect. I didn’t have to go far. Within a couple hundred yards, I saw where human tracks had exited the woods, within feet of one of my posted signs. Not far away a hunter was going across an open field so I hollered at him to get his attention, and he stopped. When I got to him I asked what all the shooting was about. He told me that he had just killed a nice buck and was going for help. I asked him if he knew the property was posted. He responded, “No, but I have permission to hunt from the landowner.” “Well,” I said, “I’m the landowner, so I think we have a problem because I’ve never seen you before.” As it turned out he had permission to hunt a neighboring landowner’s property and didn’t think there would be any problem inching over onto our property a few hundred feet, even though it was tightly posted. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back with me. I had the hunter ticketed for trespassing and the buck was confiscated by the state. Needless to say, word spread pretty fast in my little community when others heard what I had done. Though I had had a degree of success merely asking for cooperation, it took prosecuting this individual to get the job done. Since this incident, trespassing on our property has drastically declined. In the best of all worlds, it would be nice to think that just posting a property according the state’s law would be enough protection to keep would-be trespassers at bay. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Every successful land manager I know didn’t attain the success they desired until they began to prosecute trespassers. Good signage and words can be very effective, but nothing trumps prosecution of trespassing when all else fails. With more and more hunters leasing property to hunt, the topic of how the leasing party should handle trespassers is of interest. Brad Herndon of Brownstown, Ind., is well known for his deer-hunting prowess. He and his wife Carol lease property in southern Indiana for deer hunting. Here’s how they handle trespassers. “The first thing we did when we leased the current location for hunting was let surrounding landowners and hunters know our rules. Initially, we had problems because the COs had never done much about ‘ATVers’ and trespassers, so they were reluctant to do much unless we had hard evidence. “To secure trespassing evidence we took our digital camera and photographed our posted signs so that the law knew when the signs were put up. Then we photographed the trespassers in the act. These photos gave us the proof we needed to prosecute because digital cameras have time data on each image taken. It took this evidence to get the perpetrators arrested. Sadly, words don’t work anymore. The only way you can eliminate trespassing is by prosecuting. I wish this wasn’t the case but for us this is the only way we’ve been able to keep trespassers from coming on our leased land. “We also put in our lease contract that only my wife and I can use the property along with two guests, and guests can only hunt when we are hunting. Also, we place our posted signs close together so that they can’t be missed. Basically, it took us two years to clean up the trespassing problem. It takes this long for the word to get out that you will not tolerate trespassers and, when caught, they will be prosecuted. “Initially, the locals were very upset with me, but within a couple years, they began leasing ground for hunting because they saw the trend and wanted a place to hunt. Whatever you do will make the neighbors mad, but in the long run, it all works out to your advantage because people begin to get the point.”


A book could be filled on how different landowners handle trespassing problems. The examples I’ve provided are similar to numerous others and very representative of how landowners successfully address the trespass problem. The bottom line is that it is best to exceed state posting laws when posting a property (i.e., more signs than necessary). Secondly, the word must get out to the public. Then, when the landowner confronts a trespasser the engagement must be with a calm, polite demeanor and always with respect for the individual confronted. And lastly, if needed, prosecution should be carried out to the fullest extent of the law.

Taking Care of Trespassing >>>>>>>>>
• Follow the posting regulations of your state. If none exists, erect posted signs close enough to each other that they cannot be missed. The posting must be along every boundary. My recommendation is every 60 feet. Also, have the posted sign include the maximum trespassing penalty on the sign.
• Patrol the boundaries frequently, especially during hunting season.
• Get the word out to the public. Never miss an opportunity to do so, whether at a public event, the gas station or the post office.
• Confront trespassers with a polite demeanor and with respect for the individual confronted.
• If you feel you want to prosecute, get the necessary ID and alert law enforcement. Once the ID is obtained, don’t linger – back out of the situation.
• Follow through with the prosecution.
• Work hard to be a good neighbor, but do so in a way that they know what you are doing and why.