Sportsmen's groups are bracing for another trespass bill as the 2019 session of the North Dakota Legislature approaches.
The session gets underway Thursday, Jan. 3.
In terms of hunting and fishing legislation, a trespass bill, if passed, stands to have the biggest potential impact on North Dakota's outdoor heritage, said Mike McEnroe of Fargo, a retired biologist and part-time lobbyist for the North Dakota Wildlife Federation and the North Dakota Chapter of The Wildlife Society.
Attempts to pass a trespass law that would prohibit hunters from accessing private land without permission even if it's not posted are nothing new. A bill introduced during the 2017 North Dakota legislative session triggered heated debate between sportsmen and farm groups before being defeated by a 17 to 28 margin in the state Senate.
"I think there's probably no doubt" similar legislation will be introduced for the coming session, McEnroe said.
Earlier this year, Terry Steinwand, director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, organized two meetings between sportsmen's groups-representatives from Pheasants Forever, United Sportsmen, the North Dakota Wildlife Federation, Cass County Wildlife Club and the North Dakota Bowhunters Association attended-and the North Dakota Stockmen's Association in an effort to reach an alternative to a trespass law.
The Stockmen's Association is among the leading proponents of trespass legislation.
Long story short, the two sides failed to reach a solution.
"The first meeting I thought went fairly well," Steinwand said Friday. "The second meeting pretty much degraded into-it wasn't a shouting match, that's absolutely not true-but it really got into the guts of the philosophical differences between the two, and it was getting no place in a hurry."
Minnesota and South Dakota long have had laws on the books requiring hunters to have landowner permission before entering private land even if it isn't posted. In North Dakota, by comparison, hunters generally can access private land unless it's posted by the landowner.
Farmers and other proponents of a trespass bill say the posting requirement puts an unfair burden on landowners because of the time, effort and expense required to place the signs.
Sportsmen's groups, meanwhile, say a trespass bill won't solve the problem of hunters accessing land they shouldn't. Out of more than 100,000 hunters who take the field every year in North Dakota, the Game and Fish Department reports only about 100 hunting without permission convictions annually, McEnroe said.
No doubt, a trespass law would be a big change for North Dakota hunters. But growing up in Minnesota, where I'm also a landowner and where obtaining permission is an accepted cost of doing business as a hunter, I like the convenience of knowing I don't have to place signs to make a case if a trespass incident occurs.
Even so, trespassing is among the most common violations Minnesota conservation officers encounter every fall.
It all depends on what you're used to, I guess.
"We certainly understand there are some landowners that have problems," McEnroe said. "We also tried to explain a trespass bill won't necessarily solve the problems (landowners say they're) having. If people are not obeying the signs that are up that say 'No Hunting or Trespassing' or 'No Hunting or Trespassing Without Permission,' why would anybody think there's going to be less of a problem if you don't put signs up at all?
"That's a pretty drastic step for 100 cases a year when we've got 100,000 hunters a year out there."
The upcoming legislative session will be Steinwand's seventh as Game and Fish director, and some version of a trespass law has come up during five of the previous six sessions, he said.
"This isn't anything necessarily brand-new," Steinwand said. "Now whether or not it's got more traction than in the past, I guess I don't know."
That being said, all the signs point to a trespass bill coming down the pike sooner rather than later. Stay tuned.
Bills and updates
Last session, McEnroe said the North Dakota Wildlife Federation looked at about 33 bills that dealt specifically with hunting and fishing, along with several bills involving other natural resource issues, and he expects about the same this year.
"Typically in a legislative session, there's 40 to 60 bills that deal with outdoor topics, so I'm sure there'll be any number of small bills," he said.
Again this session, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department will track hunting and fishing legislation and post updates on its website at www.gf.nd.gov.
The updates will include a brief description of each bill, along with the bill sponsor and hearing schedule. To view each bill in its entirety, click on the linked bill number.
In addition, the ND Resident Sportsmen's Etree will post regular updates on bills and issues of significance that come up during the session. To be added to the Etree list, send an email to email@example.com along with your name and legislative district number.