Avoiding Conflicts Between Waterfowl Hunters and Waterfront Property Owners
New York has approximately 35,000 waterfowl hunters, and many enjoy the challenges and traditions of hunting on public waters. This includes lakes, ponds, rivers and bays where the lands under water are owned by the people of the State of New York, or some other state or local government. In many of these locations, there is also residential development along privately-owned shoreline. This can create a potential conflict between "waterfowlers" and nearby residents.
Even though waterfowlers have a legal right to hunt on most public lands and waters, landowners may object to hearing gunshots, be concerned about their safety, and may try to exert ownership rights over the waters in front of their property. This web page discusses the rights and responsibilities of both waterfowlers and landowners, in hopes that conflicts can be better understood, mitigated or avoided.
Ownership of Underwater Lands
In New York, State ownership of lands under water varies depending upon the type of water body. For instance, State ownership of lands under large inland lakes such as the Finger Lakes, and boundary waters such as Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain begins at the mean low water mark; while state ownership of land under tidal water and the Mohawk, Seneca and Hudson Rivers generally begins at the high water mark or top of bank. Other navigable riverbeds in New York can be owned by the adjoining riparian owners to the center or thread of the stream but are subject to a public right of navigation. Whereas, small ponds and small natural lakes can be privately owned.
Bays and harbors on Long Island are generally owned by the towns in which the water bodies are located as a result of colonial era grants and are generally considered public waters. Public water bodies can be accessed using public access points. If you are unsure about where you can legally hunt waterfowl, contact a New York State Environmental Conservation Officer for assistance. More information on public rights of navigation in New York is available on DEC's website.
Photo by Chris Spies
Environmental Conservation Law
The NYS Environmental Conservation Law (ECL) and associated regulations establish the framework for hunting seasons and access to hunting areas. The law specifies who may hunt, the times and seasons when hunting may occur, what species may be taken, and the type of implements that may be used. The law also has numerous provisions intended to enhance public safety.
In order for someone to hunt waterfowl in New York, they have to be licensed. Since 1949, it has been a prerequisite that all prospective licensees take an approved Hunter Safety Course. This course covers the basics of conservation, hunting laws, hunting methods, safe gun handling, and landowner relations. The law and regulations also set seasons and times for waterfowl hunting.
To help control local-nesting or "resident" Canada geese, there is a season in September when geese may be taken. During fall and winter, there are duck and goose hunting seasons that typically extend for about 10 weeks. In upstate New York, a special hunting season for snow geese extends until mid-April. Refer to annual waterfowl hunting season dates for more information on waterfowl hunting zones and seasons. Legal shooting hours typically are from ½-hour before sunrise until sunset.
Discharging a Firearm while Hunting near Dwellings
One of the more frequent complaints from landowners is in regard to discharge of firearms. Many non-hunters are unfamiliar with firearms and the prevailing media reports of firearms typically involve their use in crimes.
Shotguns used for waterfowl hunting are loud and it can be difficult for a person to determine where or how far away a shooter may actually be. Gunshots that occur unexpectedly, especially in early morning hours, may cause landowners to be alarmed, if not simply disturbed.
Photo by Chris Spies
The ECL generally prohibits discharge of firearms within 500 feet of a dwelling or other occupied structure, unless permission is received from the owner. However, for waterfowl hunting, the NYS Legislature recognized that human settlement patterns and waterfowl habits warranted special consideration. When hunting ducks or geese that congregate on near-shore waters, it is safer for a hunter to shoot away from shore than to shoot toward shore from open water. The ECL recognizes this and so specifies that when hunting waterfowl and shooting over water, discharge of firearms within 500 feet of a dwelling is allowed, as long as there is not any dwelling, public structure, livestock or person within 500 feet of the shooter in the direction they are shooting (ECL Section 11-0931). This means that a hunter may legally hunt from shore, a boat, or blind even if there is a house less than 500 feet behind him or her, as long as shooting occurs out over the water and away from the house.
The ECL does not allow hunters to enter private property without permission or to use private property to access public lands and waters. In New York, the public trust waters are the waters of the State, and public trust lands are the lands now, or formerly, beneath those waters. The living resources inhabiting or dependent on these lands and waters are also subject to the Public Trust Doctrine. On Long Island, as a result of colonial era grants, some of these public trust lands are held by the towns. More information on public rights of navigation in New York is available on DEC's website. Hunters must avoid using private property for access to public lands and waters and any areas posted with a warning for trespass.
Riparian (shoreline) landowners are afforded certain rights by virtue of their proximity to public waters. For example, they have the right to seek a permit from the state to use the underwater lands in front of their property for placement of a boat dock or mooring. Riparian landowners also have a right to cross public lands and waters to access navigable waters, subject to applicable laws and regulations.
Photo by Chris Spies
It is important for landowners to recognize that their control extends only to the property they fully own. Landowners may not interfere with or exert control over legal activities occurring on public lands and waters. Specifically, it is illegal for any person to harass a person who is legally hunting (ECL Section 11-0110). At the same time, it is reasonable and helpful to advise the hunter of any concerns you might have.
It is also important for riparian landowners to be familiar with hunting laws so they understand what is legal. If a landowner observes behavior they believe to be unsafe or illegal, they should contact a NYS Environmental Conservation Officer.
Hunter behavior is often scrutinized by the public. Inappropriate actions or simple poor judgment by just a few hunters can lead to controversy, and result in the call for additional laws, regulations, or local ordinances that would restrict all hunters.
It is important that hunters be aware of and obey all State hunting laws, as well as any local discharge ordinances. When using public lands and waters, it is essential that hunters access these areas legally.
Hunters also must show ethical and courteous behavior to local residents. A little courtesy and time spent before a hunt can go a long way to avoid or minimize problems. Here are some suggestions:
- Consider contacting landowners adjacent to where you will be hunting, well in advance of your hunt. Let them know when and where you will be hunting. They may be less concerned if you only plan to hunt a few days, or at certain times of the day.
- Take the time to explain to the landowner your intent to abide by the laws and regulations pertaining to waterfowl hunting, your familiarity with the locations of houses, and your desire to be safe.
- Plan out your shooting directions, and verify that the spot you choose to hunt is safe and in compliance with the law. Keep in mind that shot pellets, especially when discharged at a high angle, can sometimes travel farther than 500 feet.
- Identify any concerns the landowner may have and discuss them before you go hunting.
- Leave your hunting location as clean as you found it; be sure to pick up your empty shell casings and other litter you may find.
Resolution of Conflicts
Mutual understanding and courtesy shown by hunters and shoreline homeowners can go a long way toward preventing conflicts. However, there are some situations where the parties themselves are not capable of resolving conflicts. In those situations, it is appropriate for either the homeowner or hunter to contact DEC's Division of Law Enforcement at their 24-hour hotline 1-877-457-5680, or the Bureau of Wildlife at the Regional DEC office nearest you.
For a handy "pocket reference" for police officers and waterfowlers, contact your nearest DEC Wildlife Office or email your request.