BISMARCK, N.D. - Hundreds of people piled into a North Dakota Capitol hearing room to spend more than three hours discussing two portions of the state's heritage: land ownership and hunting.

While the discussion on Senate Bill 2315 during a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on Friday, Jan. 25 largely pitted agriculture groups against hunters, some farmers spoke out against the bill and some hunters spoke in favor of it.

The bill would eliminate North Dakota's requirement that landowners who don't want people to enter their land have to post it for no trespassing. That would put the burden of asking for permission to hunt on hunters. The bill also would set up a database for people to list their land as open to hunters, and supporters say that would clear up any access issues.

The hearing on the issue began at 8:30 a.m. and lasted nearly until noon before committee chair Sen. Larry Luick, R-Fairmount called a recess until after the day's floor session. Luick said no action would be taken on the bill until a later date. At least 10 more supporters of the bill indicated a desire to testify in the later hearing.

Supporters of the bill called it more a matter of private property rights than an anti-hunting issue. Most people who testified discussed their own heritage of hunting. But they also discussed the need to know who is on their land and what they're doing there.

Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, takes committee questions on SB2315.
Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, takes committee questions on SB2315.
Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, said current laws have not dealt with the burdens landowners face. Signs to post land cost money, and it takes substantial time to put them up. When signs are taken down or destroyed, law enforcement cannot prove that a trespasser knew that they were not authorized to be on someone's land.

"This is not a new issue," Ellingson said.

The Stockmen's Association has led the charge for the bill, which follows a similar, failed effort during the 2017 legislative session, and groups from across the spectrum of agriculture in North Dakota have been on board with the idea.

"My private property rights are much more important to me than my right to go hunting," said

farmer John Weinand of Hazen.

Tyler Lannoye of Bismarck is a non-landowning hunter who uses apps and plat books to find places to hunt. Lannoye said asking for permission establishes a relationship with landowners and gives him information about other people who may be on the land, making it a safety issue.

"Saying I have a right to utilize private property without permission is just ludicrous," he said.

Many outdoor enthusiasts and landowners, however, said a change in the posting requirement would lead to a loss of access and a loss of economic activity for the state. Some opponents of the bill suggested that the agriculture groups were not willing to find middle ground.

Nick Simonson, an attorney and outdoors writer living in Bismarck, suggested the law works as it is and that there are other, better solutions to the problems faced by landowners.

"This chasm isn't so wide we cannot build a bridge," he said.

John Bradley of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation holds a sign that he says his group is willing to post for landowners.
John Bradley of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation holds a sign that he says his group is willing to post for landowners.
Posting land is not as big of a deal as made out to be, several opponents said. John Bradley of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation said his organization is willing to post for landowners.

Others said a change in law wouldn't change the problems faced by landowners, as "slob hunters" would consider to hunt without permission, whether land was posted or not.

Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier offered neutral testimony, saying existing law is not working. His county handled numerous trespassing cases during the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, and some cases hinged on whether no-trespassing signs were in place. If someone tore down a sign, there was no way to prove that a trespasser knew the land was posted, he said. Laws, he said in relation to a question from a committee member, serve as a deterrent and a mechanism to prosecute bad behavior.

The possibilities of technology in solving the problems came up numerous times. The idea that farmers could "post" their land - or conversely mark their land as "open" - via online program or mobile application seemed to be something people were open to but leery of. Several hunters speaking in favor of the bill brought up the app onX, which they had used to find landowners and ask permission to hunt. But some landowners were concerned about posting their information online, both for safety purposes and to keep competition from knowing too much about who operates what land.

Several people who testified suggested the issue needs more studying and collaboration. Terry Steinwand, director of North Dakota Game & Fish, said he generally has opposed such bills because of the impact on hunting. But in his neutral testimony, he said there obviously are problems that need to be dealt with so that the "merry-go-round" of bills every session can stop.

The hearing was not without its moments of levity, despite the fierce debate. Greg Daws, a farmer from Michigan, N.D., urged a do-pass on the bill, pointing out the damage done to his land by people there without permission and the time and money spent posting signs.

"I spend more money each year on hunting signs than my wife and I did on our wedding," he said to laughs. On questioning from the committee, he said his wedding cost $367, while signs cost more than $1,000 per year.