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Special report: Politicians brace for N.D. hunting debate

When they meet next month, North Dakota legislators likely will be pulled into a debate that has the makings of a gang fight. As many as 50 bills about hunting could be introduced, with several certain to create a rift over putting more restricti...

When they meet next month, North Dakota legislators likely will be pulled into a debate that has the makings of a gang fight.

As many as 50 bills about hunting could be introduced, with several certain to create a rift over putting more restrictions on out-of-state hunters.

The resident/nonresident issue centers around personal beliefs and economic factors.

Farmers and ranchers like Doug Landenberger of Tuttle say nonresident hunters bring much-needed dollars into economically depressed rural areas.

"Let 'em come and spend their money," he says.

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Residents like Toby Thielges of LaMoure, however, see it another way.

Thielges favors restrictions. A major reason he is a North Dakotan is because of the hunting. He considers nonresidents to be a threat to some of the state's most valuable natural resources -- birds that are hunted for sport.

He, too, will be paying attention to the Legislature, which will consider as many bills "as you can think of -- there is probably even more," says state Sen. Tom Fischer, R-Fargo and chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.

Fischer is making sure the bills get a good airing. So he says he'll wait before introducing as many as 10 bills relating to resident/nonresident waterfowl hunting.

He wants to make certain people have enough advance warning so they can attend hearings.

Among questions sure to be debated:

- Should waterfowl hunting be a recreational reward for residents living in an isolated state that offers relatively low wages, or are ducks and geese game for anyone who wants to pay to hunt them?

- Should the state erect an invisible fence along its eastern border with Minnesota to keep away Gopher State duck and goose hunters?

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- Or should it just as well put up neon signs on westbound Interstate 94 reading "Ducks R Us?"

- Is there middle ground where both sides of the resident/nonresident waterfowl hunting issue can cordially reside?

- Which group of waterfowl hunters packs more of an economic punch to small towns in North Dakota, residents or nonresidents?

Those issues, alone, could involve considerable political wrangling.

But how thw bills get resolved is another question.

"If I knew that I'd be the smartest person around," says Bismarck's Mike Donahue, a lobbyist for the North Dakota Wildlife Federation and the United Sportsmen of North Dakota, two sportsmen's groups that advocate nonresident caps. "I don't think anybody has any idea what's going to come out of the Legislature."

Two surefire bills

Take for granted that two primary bills will be introduced to the Legislature regarding the resident/nonresident issue. More could be introduced once the Legislature convenes, Donahue says.

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Both bills were endorsed by the interim Judiciary "B" Committee, which reviewed proposed changes in hunting laws for more than a year before wrapping up work in September.

One measure is based on the so-called "hunter pressure concept," which limits nonresidents' licenses based on waterfowl numbers, environmental conditions and the number of resident hunters. The number of nonresidents allowed to hunt ducks in the state would vary yearly based on those factors.

The other bill caps out-of-state licenses at 10,000 for each of two successive 10-day periods at the start of hunting season. After 20 days, there would be no limit on the number of nonresident hunters. The bill would eliminate zones that currently limit hunters to certain areas of the state.

Sportsmen's groups favor the hunter pressure concept, which was conceived by biologists at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

"It makes more sense because it takes environmental conditions into consideration," Donahue says.

Sandy Barnes of Jamestown, a leader in the Sportsmen's Alliance, says the hunter pressure concept is a good idea because it will maintain a balance between residents and nonresidents.

Barnes says if the number of nonresident hunters coming to North Dakota continues to rise, they will feel crowded and eventually be turned off to North Dakota. Most duck hunting in North Dakota is done on a strip of land known as the Missouri Coteau that runs from north to south over the central portion of the state.

"It's a small corridor. It's a limited space," Barnes says. "It's like the Fargodome. It's a great place to watch a concert if there are 20,000 people inside. But if you try to fit 30,000 in it, then it's miserable for everybody.

"If we limit the number of nonresidents, we can guarantee them a quality hunt. That doesn't mean you will go back home with a limit of ducks, but it means that you will have a place to hunt and you will have a chance to harvest something. The way it is now, I think we could see a vast decline in the number of nonresidents because their experience is so poor."

Devils Lake Chamber of Commerce president Randy Frost, however, says the hunter pressure concept could severely limit nonresidents traveling to the state. That would be devastating for communities like his that rely heavily on money brought in by nonresident waterfowl hunters.

If there must be a cap, Frost favors the 10,000 limit for the first 20 days of the season, with no limit after that. It would limit nonresident pressure early in the season, but allow Devils Lake to market to late-season hunters.

"Let's protect the resident hunters when most people hunt early in the season and then open it up after that," Frost says. "And if we find out that 15,000 or 20,000 nonresidents come per week after that, then maybe we have to take a look at it again and readjust. But statistics don't show that happening."

Frost says this year's 30,000 cap, while having a negative impact on the Devils Lake area, provided good information heading into the legislative session.

Frost says motels in the lake region reported a 10 to 15 percent drop in bookings.

A problem with a cap, he says, is that hunters who buy licenses early don't necessarily travel to North Dakota to use them. Many hunters canceled motel reservations in Devils Lake, he said.

Frost says the state needs to find out exactly how many of the 30,000 hunters who purchased licenses used them. That's so unused licenses could be resold to late-season hunters.

Also, the first-time resident-only week of duck hunting prior to the general opener had no measurable economic impact on Devils Lake. That disputes people who say resident hunters have the same economic impact as nonresidents, Frost says.

"I cannot confirm a single booking in any of my motels for the opening week of duck hunting. Not one. If that week would have been open for nonresidents, I would have filled the motels."

It's about access

Game and Fish Department director Dean Hildebrand has a standard reply when asked about the proliferation of nonresident hunters in the state.

"It's great they love North Dakota," Hildebrand says. "We just don't want them to love it to death."

There's good reason for that love affair:

- In November, the "edershunting" Web site named the Devils Lake area one of the top 10 in the world for lesser snow geese.

- As for ducks, the state ranks fifth in the nation with 700,000 killed in 2001.

With the resident/nonresident issue now in the hands of the Legislature, Hildebrand's department is concentrating on opening more private land to public access. Officials hope that will alleviate some of the frustration hunters feel because more and more private land is being leased and posted.

"We'll never be able to buy our way out of access problems. We're not going to buy a spot for every hunter in North Dakota to hunt. That is not realistic," Game and Fish deputy director Roger Rostvet says. "Public land is a place to start. We hope to provide access to land with basic, good-quality habitat. It will receive heavy usage. It is not a panacea. It is part of the package that hunters can utilize."

Most important to waterfowl hunters might be the Game and Fish program known as Private Land Open to Sportsmen, or PLOTS. The program is funded by interest earned from the Game and Fish reserve fund and sales of the state habitat stamp required on each North Dakota hunting license.

It also received a boost last spring when Gov. John Hoeven authorized additional money from the reserve fund be freed to help ease public-access problems.

PLOTS land added up to nearly 250,000 acres in 2002, although much of it was pheasant habitat. However, PLOTS land was added in the north central and northeast parts of the state last spring in hopes of opening some wetlands to waterfowl hunters.

Hildebrand says his department's goal is to have 500,000 acres enrolled in the PLOTS program by 2007.

The land is leased from farmers and ranchers for a certain number of years.

That acreage is in addition to federally managed Waterfowl Production Areas and state-managed Wildlife Management Areas that are open to public hunting.

Mark Mazaheri, a Fargo hunter and vocal opponent of Hoeven's proposal last spring to open the pheasant season one week earlier, says programs like PLOTS are a good start, but don't have enough funding to allow large tracts of land to be opened for public hunting.

Mazaheri, a supporter of limiting nonresidents, advocates a significant increase in license fees for both residents and nonresidents. The increased revenue, he says, could be used to lease land from farmers and ranchers. That land could then be opened to public hunting.

"I think we need public programs that can compete with the private sector. We should be able to offer landowners lease rates that compete with private parties," Mazaheri says. "A lot of guys would not have a problem with paying more for a license if they knew the end result would be better habitat and increased access."

Barnes, of the Sportsmen's Alliance, terms the PLOTS program "a joke" because the land receives so much hunting pressure that all the game is either shot or driven off it. He says the problem with access lies largely with guides and outfitters, who lease up huge amounts of land and post it with "No Hunting" signs.

Barnes, for example, says two guides leased approximately 168,000 acres in Stutsman County this year. The problem has grown, Barnes said, because guides and outfitters proliferated in the past decade as hunting improved in North Dakota. The Game and Fish Department reports there were 82 licensed guides in the state in 1990 and 380 this year. Barnes wants to see limits and qualifications placed on guides and outfitters. Currently, there are none other than a nominal fee for a guide's license.

Donahue, the lobbyist for two sportsmen's groups, says a comprehensive bill will be introduced to the Legislature that is meant to better regulate guides and outfitters. It is supported by the state's guides and outfitters association.

"Not all of the past is bad. People say times are changing, that people coming into the state and paying for hunting isn't bad," Sportsmen's Alliance executive director Larry Knoblich says. "But is it the best thing for North Dakota? Is change necessarily good for everything?

"I'm an old-fashioned person. I'll admit I like to remember the past when I could drive a few miles out of town, see a nice pothole and walk down to hunt it. Is that bad?"

Not necessarily, but some might consider it unrealistic.

"Anybody who thinks keeping nonresidents out of the state is going to keep land from being leased is kidding themselves," well-known TV host and conservationist Tony Dean of Pierre, S.D., says.

"What will happen is the wealthy residents will lease up all the good hunting land. It happened here in South Dakota. It will happen in North Dakota. Times are changing and hunters have to adjust to those changes. If they don't, they are going to be disappointed."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike McFeely at (701) 241-5580

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