North Dakota outdoors legislative preview: Electronic posting bills take center stage as 2021 session approaches
The defeat of the trespass bill during the 2019 North Dakota legislative session set the stage for an interim natural resources committee, which convened to study access and trespass issues and come up with recommendations. The result was a pilot electronic-posting study that launched earlier this year in Ramsey, Slope and Richland counties.
Bills to implement an electronic land-posting system that would either expand a pilot study launched earlier this year, or add penalties for trespass violations on electronically posted land, will be among the most prominent hunting- and fishing-related issues on tap during the upcoming session of the North Dakota Legislature.
The 2021 legislative session gets underway Tuesday, Jan. 5.
According to Mike McEnroe of Fargo, a North Dakota Wildlife Federation board member and secretary of the organization, trespass bills were on the agenda for seven of the eight legislative sessions he attended as a lobbyist for the Federation.
The issue was especially contentious during the 2019 North Dakota legislative session, when a bill to consider all private lands as posted for no-trespassing without being signed, except for the purpose of hunting, was narrowly defeated in the Legislature’s final days.
Historically, private land in North Dakota has been open to access unless it’s physically posted.
“It got to be very contentious even between legislators – not only between the citizens and legislators,” said McEnroe, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and wildlife manager.
Three likely bills
The defeat of the trespass bill in 2019 set the stage for an interim natural resources committee – consisting of five legislators, two sportsmen representatives and two ag landowner representatives – which convened to study access and trespass issues and come up with recommendations. The committee also included five non-voting members with representatives from the state Agriculture Department, the state Game and Fish Department, the Information Technology Department, the Association of Counties and the North Dakota State's Attorneys Association.
The result was a pilot electronic-posting study that launched earlier this year in Ramsey, Slope and Richland counties. Participating landowners still had to physically post their land before they could press charges for trespass violations, but an online database provided an easy way for anyone seeking access to locate e-posted land or contact participating landowners.
The e-posted land also was highlighted in the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) Guide.
A total of 79 landowners in the three counties participated in the study, which covered about 38,000 acres of land, Terry Steinwand, director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said last month during a virtual meeting of the Game and Fish Advisory Board.
Game and Fish was still gathering input from participating landowners about the pilot study, but early response was favorable, Steinwand said during the virtual meeting.
Some landowners said posting their land electronically took less time than finding a staple gun to physically post signs, according to Steinwand.
“To me, that was a positive statement,” he said.
The interim natural resources committee drafted three bills that will likely be introduced during the upcoming legislative session, McEnroe of the Wildlife Federation said.
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One bill would extend the pilot study two more years and expand it to all 53 North Dakota counties, while requiring landowners to continue physically posting their land to press charges for trespass violations.
A second bill would implement e-posting in all 53 counties, with the same penalties as for land that is physically posted.
A third bill would include both criminal trespass and hunting trespass components, McEnroe said, with a provision that land with a fence be considered posted.
McEnroe said the Wildlife Federation would support the first two bills but would only support the third bill if it includes a provision clarifying the definition of a fence as “capable of confining livestock” and language designating the land as open to hunters and anglers unless physically posted for no trespassing.
John Bradley, executive director of the Federation, said there’s optimism that will happen although he hasn’t seen a copy of the third bill. Bradley will serve as a lobbyist for the Federation during the upcoming session.
“In discussions, it sounds like there will be that hunting and fishing exemption, but those are just conversations,” Bradley said. “Until I see something on paper, I hate to speculate on that.”
Any kind of trespass or posted land legislation is a tough sell for some in the Wildlife Federation, McEnroe said, but the board of directors supports e-posting, at least as outlined in two of the three bills.
“We’ve got members who are opposed to all three of them,” he said. “They think it’s part of the slippery slope toward all land being posted, and we’ve tried to argue it doesn’t really do that. All it provides is another manner of posting – physical signs or electronic posting – it doesn’t say all land is posted.
“Unposted land may still be open to hunting; you (would) just have to check to make sure it’s not e-posted.”
Nonresident bills possible
Bradley said he wouldn’t be surprised to see bills addressing nonresident hunter numbers introduced during the session. The uptick in nonresident hunters this fall in North Dakota, some of which resulted from the Canadian border closure, was a concern among some resident hunters during a virtual legislative summit the Federation hosted in early December, Bradley said.
“I would expect that we’ll see a few bills looking to address nonresident tags for deer and potentially for waterfowl and upland” license numbers, Bradley said. “I haven’t seen any bills yet, but if I was a betting man, I would expect to see something looking to address that resident sportsmen vs. nonresident issue.”
From the Federation’s perspective, it’s a tricky balance, he said.
“ We value the nonresident who comes in and is a good steward, fills up his gas tank at the local gas station, buys a beer at the bar – we value their dollars,” Bradley said. “On the other side, nobody likes to go out, wake up at 3:30 in the morning, go set up decoys and have a truck from Minnesota pull up into their spread a half-hour before sunrise.
“Without seeing what exactly bills there are, it’s hard to say. But the North Dakota Wildlife Federation is exactly that – it’s the federation for North Dakota – so North Dakota sportsmen and women, hunters and anglers, will be prioritized.”
As of midweek, only a couple of Game and Fish-related bills had been prefiled, including the department’s budget for the biennium beginning July 1 and ending June 30, 2023. Gov. Doug Burgum’s proposed budget for Game and Fish is about $91 million.
During an interview this week, Steinwand, the Game and Fish Department’s director, said budget priorities include chronic wasting disease, aquatic nuisance species and “R3” efforts to recruit, retain and reactivate hunters and anglers.
In a typical session, “anywhere between 35 and 40 bills” potentially affect the department, Steinwand said.
“Our budget is looking pretty good,” he said. “The governor pretty well gave us everything we asked for. Of course, that has to go through the Legislature yet. We don’t know exactly what’s going to come out of that, but I think we’re sitting pretty good there.”
Strong funding for the Game and Fish Department will be a priority, said Bradley, the North Dakota Wildlife Federation executive director and lobbyist.
“We’re hoping that we can get strong support for the Game and Fish budget and then hopefully use some of the General Fund monies to promote some expanded habitat and access programs,” Bradley said.
The Game and Fish Department and the Wildlife Federation both will offer bill-tracking information on issues affecting sportsmen and women, Bradley said.
“I would encourage hunters, anglers and trappers to stay vigilant, keep an eye out and be willing to make that phone call or get on the computer and send an email to their senators and representatives,” he said. “Those legislators are there to represent us, and we need to engage them and have our thoughts and opinions heard by them.”
On the Web:
To view bill tracking online or sign up for email updates when the session begins, check out the North Dakota Wildlife Federation website at northdakotawildlife.org or the Game and Fish Department website at gf.nd.gov .