ND House passes protection from public, leaves private land open to hunters

The North Dakota House of Representatives has taken a step toward improving property right protections. A bill that would have helped move the state toward adopting fundamental property rights in regard to trespass was split into two parts. Division one, the segment that would change the law to require the public to ask permission before entering private property (for all purposes except for hunting) was approved by the House of Representatives. The second part would have created an allowance for electronic posting, established an advisory group on access issues and required the group to make a majority recommendation by 2020 or land would be considered closed for hunting purposes. This segment failed. In the end, the remaining portions of the bill passed.

The Senate passed a different version earlier this session – a bill that included the electronic “posting” option, that allowed landowners to select “open to hunting,” “closed to hunting,” or “open with permission.” The bill now goes to conference committee where committee members from both the House and Senate will negotiate, and will need to approve some version of the bill in order to keep the issue alive. If a compromise is found, both chambers must approve it, in order for the bill to become law.

Current North Dakota law allows the public to access on private property unless the landowner has posted signs at various points around their property indicating “no trespassing” or “no hunting.”

North Dakota Stockmen’s Association Executive Vice President Julie Ellingson calls the current statute “archaic” and says this is the closest the state has ever come to updating the law.

“It would have been nice to have had the whole shebang, but we appreciate the vote in the House that allows us to continue working on this issue.”

Lidgerwood rancher and landowner Kathy Skroch, representing District 26 said that her constituents had hoped to see the bill passed in its entirety.

“SB 2315 was going to be a good answer to protecting private landowners’ rights and as it split, it very definitely weakened the bill,” she said.

Skroch said the issue has been a hot one during the session, and she worries that landowners across the state are at a “flashpoint.” She fears that without some fundamental property protections, landowners will “lock the land up so tight, it will be a slamming of the door.”

She hopes the public is gaining a better understanding of the frustration landowners feel about this issue. “We’ve been kicking the can down the road. I’m told landowners are going to take that can, fill it with cement and stick a big ‘no trespassing,’ ‘no hunting’ sign right in the middle of it.”

Skroch said she is still hopeful the state can avoid that situation with some common sense legislation.

Several sportsmen groups are lobbying hard to keep the status quo for hunters.

Darrell Belisle of Turtle Lake spoke on behalf of the North Dakota Bowhunters. In an earlier 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.

Skroch said she heard an opponent to the bill say that “owning land is a privilege and hunting is a right,” and that it is only a handful of “selfish, lazy” ranchers who want to require hunters to ask permission before accessing private property.