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Cass County prosecutor Ryan Younggren discusses elements of prosecuting trespass violations before the Legislature's interim Natural Resources Committee on Monday, Aug. 26, at the state Capitol in Bismarck. Jack Dura / Bismarck Tribune

North Dakota's contentious 'trespass bill' in study stage

BISMARCK — One of the most debated bills of the 2019 Legislature could be back before North Dakota lawmakers in 2021.

The Legislature's interim Natural Resources Committee heard information Monday, Aug. 26, related to trespass violations and electronic land posting in its first meeting on a land access study, born from the so-called "trespass bill" which sought to reform posting of and hunting access on private land.

The committee includes several members of the public who are farmers or ranchers, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring and Terry Steinwand, director of the state Game and Fish Department.

Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr, chairs the committee and hopes to have a bill brought in 2021 to resolve the issues in private land posting and hunting access. Current law requires landowners to post their land with signs — seen by some as onerous — or have the land essentially be presumed open.

Erbele's bill received more than 30 hours of testimony. Some lawmakers said they received more messages about the bill than any other — more than 500 emails in one representative's case.

At its core, the bill presumed all private land as closed but for hunting and proposed an electronic posting database.

The bill was heavily revised and ultimately failed on a narrow House vote after more than an hour of floor debate on the Legislature's last day in session. The bill included a study, which passed as an identical twin in a separate budget bill.

Debate around Erbele's bill focused on private property rights and hunting heritage. His efforts have been to "connect the hunter to the landowner."

"Our committee here is working towards a solution that the Legislature can accept," Erbele said.

Steinwand presented information on trespass violations since 2014. An average of 0.05% of general game and habitat licensees are cited yearly for hunting on posted land, or an average of 65 out of 132,000 license holders.

"Let's say you double that: It's still pretty low," Steinwand said.

Cass County prosecutor Ryan Younggren discussed elements of trespass prosecution, such as video evidence and a criminal intent.

Brian Hosek, information technology coordinator for Game and Fish, outlined challenges in building an electronic posting database or application, such as maintaining accuracy and updating landownership.

Goehring said he'd like a "simple" solution from the committee's work as other members questioned what access could exist for hikers, bird watchers and berry pickers and if an app could designate game species allowed for hunting on private lands.

"We can have a big wish list, but if it really comes down to just access for hunters, maybe we just need to stay on point," Goehring said.

As the study moves along, Erbele hopes for "solution-oriented" comments from the public, given the extensive debate last session. The committee will meet four or five times.

At its next meeting, likely not before October, the group might discuss implementing a county-level pilot project for electronic posting and hunting access information, to be established within the next year.