N. Dakota discusses trespass laws again
January 31, 2019
For the seventh time, ag groups in North Dakota are working to gain support for a bill that would no longer require landowners to post "no hunting" signs in order to expect hunters to ask for permission to access private property. The bill would also provide hunters with a directory of land open to hunting.
North Dakota law currently states it is landowners' responsibility to post clear and detailed signs at every entrance to their private property from public roads or public land indicating that trespassing is not allowed. The name of the person posting the land must appear on each sign in legible characters, signs must be readable from outside of the land, and posted not more than 880 yards apart or at each entrance or gate.
Several times, landowners and ag groups have worked to update this law, to give landowners the right to reasonable privacy. These individuals would like to require that people are not allowed to hunt on private property without permission – even if "no trespassing" or "no hunting" signs are not posted, and are urging passage of SB 2315.
Julie Ellingson, representing the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, said her group has supported policy along these lines for years, but that things "really came to a head" in the heart of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest. "This archaic law was the loophole that allowed trespassers to get away with it."
After failing to gain enough support pass a bill similar to this in the 2017 legislature (the North Dakota legislature meets every other year), the NDSA spent the next two years talking with stakeholders across the state. "We met with those who are affected by this as well as agency leaders, all in the spirit of acknowledging concerns of those who have impacted the outcome of this in the past."
Ellingson feels like the bill has a lot of momentum this year. In a rare move, the Senate Ag Committee re-opened its hearing following the Senate's general assembly, in order to take testimony.
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"The proponents kept coming and coming, from all corners of the state, saying that it is important that we once and for all reclaim precious property rights that have been lost."
But there is opposition to the bill and Ellingson encourages anyone from across the state who supports the bill to contact his or her legislators and ask for a "yes" vote. The Senate Ag Committee likely won't vote on it until Feb. 7 or 8, she believes.
The North Dakota Ag Coalition, representing 45 statewide ag groups, has endorsed it – something the group rarely does, said Ellingson.
The bill sponsor is working on a bill amendment that will give the state time – at least two years – to adequately prepare the database, and to include all stakeholders in the process. The amendment may include a phase-out period of a couple of years for the hunting access aspect of the current law.
Rancher and avid hunter Clayton Pederson, Sioux County, North Dakota, said some see the bill as "anti-hunting," but it isn't. Instead, the bill would improve hunter/landowner relationships, he said.
"We just want to know who is out there," said Pederson, a former field representative for the National Rifle Association. "I believe you should get permission from the landowner to hunt, no matter what. I teach my kids that. That's a fundamental responsibility as an ethical hunter. You visit with the landowner if you want to hunt on his or her land. It doesn't matter if it's a neighbor or a stranger. It's important for my kids to know that."
Pederson said he keeps his land posted, but often gives permission to hunt. However, the signs have a way of disappearing. "I put signs on an unfenced property line explaining which land was public and which wasn't. The signs disappeared within a day."
Several hunting groups testified against the bill during the Senate Ag Committee hearing last week.
Darrell Belisle of Turtle Lake spoke on behalf of the North Dakota Bowhunters. In an interview with TSLN, he said he was a part of a sportsmens group that met with the North Dakota Stockmen's Association since the 2017 legislative session but that the two groups didn't reach a compromise.
"Sportsmens groups are concerned first about the lack of contact information. We use the posted signs to know who to contact and to know whose land we are on. Our biggest concern is that we'll lose hunters. This will cause more confusion and we'll lose even more hunters," he said.
Hunters have a hard time knowing whose land is whose, he said, and it's hard to find landowners, particularly out of state ones.
"Personally, myself, I prefer to ask permission even though that land may not be posted," he said.
"My group respects the landowners' concern for private property rights but we hope to find a compromise that respects the needs of the solution," he said. But neither Belisle nor his group have a suggestion as to what that compromise would be.
Belisle believes that allowing property owners reasonable privacy (without a posting requirement) is a violation of freedom of speech. "The first Amendment includes freedom of speech and right now landowners have the right to say what happens on their land. They can say 'I don't want trespassing.' They can say 'give me a call.' They can say whatever they want to. But this bill is asking the state to do the speaking for everyone, even those that don't care. I think that's a clear violation of freedom of speech."
Mary Hoff Graner ranches with her husband south of Mandan. Their ranch headquarters are 10 miles north of where the Dakota Access Pipeline protests were based during the winter of 2016-2017.
Protesting of this caliber has become the new norm, she said, and North Dakota is a target with loose trespassing laws, and much energy to be marketed.
"There are more pipelines in the making. You know darn well they are coming back, and it's so easy in North Dakota."
Graner monitored several hearings in which protesters accused of trespassing were not convicted.
She said "no trespassing" signs would be torn down, and protesters would then testify that they didn't see a sign. The same protesters would testify that they "didn't hear" law enforcement on bull horns telling the individuals they were trespassing and asking them to leave.
Graner told of one instance where a woman was burning incense in her hayyard and when asked to leave, refused. "She could have burned our hayyard and our whole place down," she said. At first the Graners thought the woman was lost and needed help but when they realized she was burning a smudge stick and asked her to leave, she refused. The sheriff told Graner that the woman couldn't be arrested for refusing to leave because the Graners did not post "no trespassing" signs on that particular approach. "This is the back side of our yard – we have equipment there, and our hay."
Some hunter groups testified to the economic value of out of state hunters, Graner said.
"We spent $40 million trying to get those protesters out of here. How many hunters coming into the state are going to make up for that deficit?"
And most out of state hunters are spending enough cash that they will have hunting access lined up ahead of time, she believes. "They already know where they are going to hunt. This won't affect them."
Pederson said that one law enforcement officer testified on the bill last week referencing a relatively small number of citations, indicating that trespass is not a problem. "That just shows it's hard to prosecute," said Pederson. "I think a lot of people have given up, they don't even know what to do."
The NDSA is pushing another bill, HB 1503, that would require that those wishing to set up game cameras acquire written permission from a landowner before doing so. "We hope this is a common sense legislation that hopefully won't create a lot of controversy." She said in their meetings across the state to discuss property rights, it was mentioned that there have been cases of individuals placing game cameras on private property without permission.
The proposed law says that that those who want their land open to hunting must notify the state, and that the state will make the information accessible including in an electronic format, and that it must be in a form that allows hunters to easily identify which private land is open to hunters.