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North Dakota lawmakers to look at land access issues after failed 'trespass bill'

No hunting and no trespassing signs could become a thing of the past under a bill being considered by the North Dakota Legislature. But many conflicts remain to be resolved over Senate Bill 2315. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — One shard remains of the so-called "trespass bill" that sought to ease issues over hunting access on private land.

Though the bill failed on North Dakota lawmakers' last day in session, a twin of its study remained intact in the budget for the Information Technology Department. Lawmakers will take up the required study likely beginning this summer, looking at issues related to land access for recommendations before the 2021 legislative session.

Legislative Management, a powerful interim committee of lawmakers, will meet next week to consider the study outlines before them, including 15 required and 50 that are optional to take up. Interim committees will be finalized in June.

Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr, brought the "trespass bill" in hopes to connect landowners and hunters. The bill morphed considerably over the course of the session, but at its core presumed all private land as closed to access for hunting.

Storms over private property rights and hunting heritage followed the bill, where it hit the rocks in the House and sank on a 44-48 vote on lawmakers' last day of session.

Now those who were involved with the bill hope for a better outcome from what the study could bring forth.

"Somehow we have to come to an agreement, I believe," said Rep. Cindy Schreiber-Beck, R-Wahpeton, who sat on committees that had the bill.

The study outlines a committee comprising two agriculture landowners, two representatives of hunting groups and five lawmakers, as well as five non-voting members from county and state levels. They'll look at electronic posting capabilities, hunting and trespass violations and penalties.

Erbele's bill sought "a bridge" for landowners and hunters. Landowners said in testimony they simply want to know who is on their land, while signage can be frustrating. The bill originally proposed a land database similar to GPS hunting apps such as onX.

"What we tried to do is try to give something to both sides, which just fell four votes short," Erbele said. "With today's technology, that electronic posting should be a very viable option."

The study also includes a trial database for land posting and hunter access in up to three North Dakota counties.

"That will have to be the object of the study, is to try to bring as much clarity to that type of system as possible," Erbele said.

Signs are indeed a sticking point.

"Again, back to the private property rights issue that it seems inappropriate that you need to take an affirmative action in order to have the rights over your property, for one," said Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association.

"And for two, there's a time and a cost burden of maintaining those signs and when those signs are damaged or stolen or whatever, that also causes challenges when it comes to prosecution and other areas because of the failure of the sign itself."

Erbele said he's unsure if he'll be part of the study committee, as Legislative Management will determine its structure.

Schreiber-Beck said she'd like to at least keep up with the study as it progresses. She pointed to issues of safety and how to post land as key to consider.

"We really need to take this seriously," Schreiber-Beck said.

The issue is an old one, with bills brought in nine previous sessions. Ellingson said she'll also watch the study, noting some counties already interested in the trial database.

"There seems like there should be some better option that recognizes property rights and also can convey information in a more efficient, effective manner for all parties," she said.

Darrell Belisle, president of the North Dakota Bowhunters Association, participated in meetings with the North Dakota Stockmen's Association in 2018 to find common ground on the issue, but those involved reached no agreement.

He said solutions have been hard to find. Electronic land posting comes down to how reliable it is, he said, such as keeping up with new landowners.

"Going forward, now there's a movement to at least try and come up with something that works versus the same old thing every time," Belisle said.