Across the prairies, farmland and badlands of North Dakota, a new crop is growing in surprising abundance. It is not spring wheat, canola, barley, soybeans or corn, but rather a crop of unique signage reading, “ND LOCK OUT” and “#IAmNDLockOut.”
The signage which began appearing in late 2019 comes from a group that took the mantle in an old fight in North Dakota. The group, North Dakota Lock Out, says that they are focused on protecting the property rights of North Dakotans as property owners -- primarily agricultural producers -- and have been seeking changes to North Dakota's private property laws.
The signage is only the latest effort in a struggle pitting landowners and hunters in a battle that has raged for more than a decade as North Dakota remains the only state in the region permitting hunters to enter private property, without permission, unless the land is posted for no trespassing or no hunting — putting the onus on the landowner.
One of the most contentious subjects during the recent legislative session, SB2315 sought to deal with the issue of whether landowners should have to post to prevent hunters and others from entering it, or whether hunters should be required to request permission from every landowner before entering private property. The amendments and subsequent watering down of the verbiage in SB2315 became the impetus for a reinvigorated debate in North Dakota and is one that will certainly be felt as pheasant season approaches this fall.
Rep. Luke Simons, R-District 36, spoke on the House floor on the topic, siding with landowners in what he said was a clear violation of property rights.
“Our land is being violated, our rights are being violated and as landowners, we are being violated,” Simons said. “Landowners would like people to ask for permission before they come on private land. It’s not a lot to ask. No one is saying, ‘no hunting here’, most welcome hunters. I welcome hunters. We just ask that they ask to come on private land.”
Simons said that hunters are failing to understand a simple concept, saying “It’s not your right, it’s a privilege” to hunt on private property.
Scott Lindgren, a lifelong outdoorsman and hunting rights lobbyists from Grand Forks, ND, said much of the blame is being directed at the wrong people and is threatening to cause significant harm to hunting in the state.
"I’m 67 years old and spend a great deal of time in the field and have since I was 15 years old. I’ve also been on the sportsman’s side of this issue and have lobbied legislators for close to 40 years and testified many more times than I can count to help protect our precious heritage – so I do know a great deal about the issue," he said. "Sure a few bad actors can spoil it for the rest, but I’m willing to bet that more acts of disrespect are done by those other than hunters – young teens out for a joy ride, oil field personal, you name it. But to pin it on just sportsmen is a crock."
Lindgren added, "A great number of non-resident hunters come to North Dakota every year benefiting many small towns. Why do they come here? Because they can’t afford to hunt in their own states since hunting is so commercialized in their own states. A good compromise is in the possible works that will protect landowners rights better on criminal trespass and also alleviate the need and expense to physically post their land."
The compromise Lindgren is referring to is that of the Legislature’s Interim Committee which has taken a lead in actively seeking to address the non-hunter and bad-hunter issues for landowners, including drafting trespass amendments and other projects such as the ongoing pilot study for electronic posting. The project stems from the failure of Senate Bill 2315 during the last session, and aims to reform posting of hunting access on private land.
As part of pilot study authorized by the 2019 state legislature, Ramsey, Richland and Slope counties were chosen to test a system that allows landowners who post their land with signs, the option to “post” their land electronically through an online database that is linked to land descriptions based on property tax records.
For the 2020 hunting season, there are currently no laws or penalties to address electronic posting as the program remains in a pilot testing phase and thus landowners who post electronically will still have to display physical signs on their property during the 2020-21 hunting seasons.
Some landowners are seeing years of debates and tugs of war between the rights of property owners and hunters failing to progress fast enough. Joe Schettler of Dunn County says he deals with trespassers every year and the issues were the catalyst for his own support for a restoration of full landowner rights in North Dakota.
Craig Armstrong, a North Dakota landowner and avid hunter himself, said that he understood both sides of the argument but when push comes to shove would side with the landowners.
“When I started hunting it was commonplace to not have posted land, so we had access to all this private land because of the laws and the way things were. It was honestly wonderful growing up that way,” Armstrong said. “In the few times that we came across land that was posted, we’d find the landowner and talk to them. It was always better to be hunting posted land with permission because not as many people were hunting there because a lot of people won’t knock on doors or make that phone call. I wouldn’t hunt on land if there was even half a sign that maybe blew away, I think it’s better to just be on the side of caution and respect.”
Armstrong detailed how challenging it was to hunt before cellphones were invented and how the innovation makes the old ways of doing things much easier.
“Back before cellphones I would write the name and phone number on the signs, come home and make the calls to the landowners to ask permission for the next time I would go out hunting,” Armstrong said. “When cellphones came out that was one of the things I was most excited about, being able to call right there. I’ve done that many times, I still do that all the time because I like doing that.”
Today, Armstrong said that he understands the concerns raised by landowners.
“It’s been great having access to all this private land that I can just hunt, it’s been wonderful. As a hunter I love our posting laws, but as an American citizen and proponent of property rights and land ownership, I don’t believe that landowners should have to post signs to keep people off the land,” he said. “Here in town if someone comes onto my property, I don’t have to post it. If people come on my land they are trespassing. Really, what is the difference?”
Armstrong added, “I don’t blame landowners who are fighting for their rights on this. As a hunter, it’ll be a little more difficult for me and it’s a tradition being lost — which is a hard thing to lose — but in today’s age with technology it’s just not that hard. You have to do your homework and go find the landowner and get permission and everyone is more comfortable. They know who is out there and you know whose land you’re hunting.”
Just southwest of Belfield, hidden in those rolling pastures of ranchland and protected by buttes and valleys, lies a patch of land that is, according to local property owners, under attack.
Evidence of the coarseness that so rattles these landowners can be found all throughout the neighboring patches of land: battered and beaten land, trash and spent shells, grass patches turned to mudholes and pronounced ruts in the shape of truck tires, some up to 10 inches deep, criss-crossing the mud chaotically, all but destroying a generations-old dirt trail used for work, not play.
The main suspects? According to the landowners, irreverent hunters.
Beginning in early 2019, farmers and ranchers along the Western Edge became more and more vocal about the apparent increase in flippant maltreatment of the land they work. Some have said that the age of hunting without permission is dying at the hands of those who benefit the most — hunters.
The grievances of these ranchers and farmers doesn’t appear to be with hunting or all hunters in general, but rather a blatant disregard by a few bad apples for the land on which they stand. Many of these same landowners are proud, but concerned hunters themselves.
“More and more people are wanting landowner rights back because of bad hunters,” Armstrong said. “There are bad hunters out there and they give all of us good hunters a bad name. They have a lot of ways that they piss off landowners by not following the rules, the law, shooting too close to their house, etc.”
Armstrong added, “It seems to me, and really is, that we’ve become more of a hunting destination state for our neighbors. Most of the bad hunters are coming from the east, places like Minnesota and Fargo. They’re from the city and don’t know the ethics and think this land is theirs to use and abuse — it’s not.”
Armstrong said that he believes that it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing should posting laws become a thing of the past.
“I think that passing those laws would weed out the bad hunters because they’ll have to put some work and effort into it that they don’t want to do,” he said. “I think that my quality of hunting, I believe, will be better because not everyone is going to do their homework. Maybe then our relationship with landowners will become better. Then and probably only then.”
For more information about the rules and regulations governing hunting on private property, visit https://gf.nd.gov/