BISMARCK, N.D. — After decades of trying to find common ground between landowners and hunters, North Dakota has updated criminal trespassing and hunting access laws.

Gov. Doug Burgum on Wednesday, April 28, signed Senate Bill 2144, which removes ambiguity in state law related to who can enter land enclosed with well-maintained fences and allows for either electronic or physical posting of land for no trespassing.

A statement from Burgum said the new law makes North Dakota the first state in the nation to allow electronic posting of private land.

“Senate Bill 2144 is a shining example of what we can accomplish when we work together and harness the power of technology to find new, innovative solutions to complex problems,” Burgum said. “This bill will ensure that landowners and hunters alike have a convenient option for posting private land and checking its status, while also leaving the traditional posting process in place for those who wish to continue using it.”

The law takes effect Aug. 1, 2021.

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Under North Dakota law, all land has been considered open to entry for any purpose unless it properly posted for no trespassing. Landowners, including many in agriculture, have tried for years to get the law changed to make all land considered closed without permission. Posting land is time consuming and labor intensive for many landowners, and conflicts with hunters who disregard signs has been a common complaint. Additionally, the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protest in Morton and Sioux counties included numerous cases of protesters entering land without permission; some criminal trespass cases did not hold up in court because of ambiguity in state law or ambiguity about whether land was properly posted.

Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr, presented four bills related to North Dakota's trespassing laws to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee on Jan. 14, 2021, in Bismarck, N.D. (Screenshot of North Dakota Legislature committee)
Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr, presented four bills related to North Dakota's trespassing laws to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee on Jan. 14, 2021, in Bismarck, N.D. (Screenshot of North Dakota Legislature committee)
Numerous attempts at changing the law drew strong interest from the public but failed to pass. A pilot project set up by the 2019 Legislature allowed the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish to try out an electronic posting system in three counties, and an interim committee led by Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr, continued to study the issue.

Several bills came out of that committee to attempt to find common ground between hunters and fishermen who wanted to maintain land access and landowners who sought to strengthen property rights. Another bill that passed this session, Senate Bill 2036, will continue to study issues related to land posting and property rights, which Erbele said will allow issues to be addressed more quickly than waiting for the 2023 session.

SB 2144 will bring "some resolution to the landowner-sportsmen conflict that we’ve been working on for, actually, many years. All 20 years that I’ve been here we’ve been working on it," Erbele said. "Finally I think we’ve bridged the gap and started to heal the chasm between those two” groups.

"That’s one of the first times you’ve seen hunters and landowners kind of come together," said Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, who farms in central North Dakota. He said the bill provides "21st century capabilities in posting your land."

This page from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen) Guide shows the location of property (circled in orange) that was electronically posted as part of a pilot study in Ramsey, Richland and Slope counties. A bill to expand the pilot study to all 53 counties is among the trespass and access bills set to be introduced in the 2021 North Dakota legislative session. (North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
This page from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen) Guide shows the location of property (circled in orange) that was electronically posted as part of a pilot study in Ramsey, Richland and Slope counties. A bill to expand the pilot study to all 53 counties is among the trespass and access bills set to be introduced in the 2021 North Dakota legislative session. (North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
The new law has two components. It defines a fence and prohibits entry into an area enclosed by a well-maintained fence able to hold livestock to anyone but lawful hunters and fishermen. It also allows landowners the option of electronically posting their land for no trespassing or using physical signs as in the past. The electronic database will give hunters information for where to contact landowners to obtain permission for entering land.

"Not everybody got everything, but everybody got something," Erbele said.

The bill also gives discretion to law enforcement by allowing them a range of options for charging a trespasser, from a non-criminal offense up to a Class A misdemeanor, depending on the severity of the offense, if they caused property damage or if they are repeat offenders.

Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, one of several ag groups that has been involved in discussions about North Dakota's property rights laws, credited Erbele's leadership for finding common ground. She called the legislation a “meaningful step forward” for landowners. Her organization continues to believe all land in the state should be presumed closed without permission.

"But we’re very very grateful for the important progress that we’ve made in Senate Bill 2144," she said.

Additionally, another bill, House Bill 1113, sponsored by Rep. Paul Thomas, R-Velva, provided welcome enhancements to property rights, Ellingson said. That bill requires landowner permission for someone to place game cameras on land or to bait animals for hunting. Ellingson said the legislation seems like a "no-brainer" that will improve communication between sportsmen and landowners.