FARGO — North Dakota would become the first state to allow the electronic posting of private land, potentially bridging a wide and historic gap between landowners and hunters, if lawmakers pass a proposed bill in the upcoming legislative session.

"I have mixed emotions about it because it's far from perfect, but generally I'm happy with it," said Killdeer rancher Joe Schletter, one of two landowner representatives on the legislature's interim natural resources committee that put together the proposal. "It's a big compromise, but it's a step in the right direction."

North Dakota law allows hunting and access without permission if private land is not posted with "No Hunting" or "No Trespassing" signs. The onus is on landowners to post their land with signs if they want to restrict access.

While many states like neighboring Minnesota and South Dakota assume private land is off-limits, North Dakota has a long tradition of open access. It's been a contentious point for farmers and ranchers for at least the last three decades as more waterfowl, pheasant and deer hunters have descended on rural North Dakota.

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Besides being a private-property rights issue, a recurring landowner frustration has been the cost and effort to post land. There've been numerous bills introduced in previous legislatures to close access. That pitted landowners against sportsmen's groups.

Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr, who chaired the interim committee, is hopeful three draft bills will bring the competing interests together, even as he acknowledges there is more work to do.

"We've come together in a very collaborative process," Erbele said. "It's like we finally said, 'Here's the problem. What's the solution?""

The first and meatiest bill would make electronic posting equal to physical posting. Both methods would be legitimate with the same penalties for violations.

A three-county trial study this fall for electronic posting — in Ramsey, Richland and Slope counties — tested the functionality of the system, but was not part of the law. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department said 79 landowners in the three counties participated in the pilot study. It totaled 268 parcels and 38,600 acres.

Erbele said the test study appears to be a success, and the proposed bill would expand electronic posting to all 53 counties. A program developed by Game and Fish and the state's information technology department using data from county geographic information systems is easy to navigate for landowners and sportsmen, Erbele said.

Landowners can post their land with a few mouse clicks, and hunters can locate posted land either with a phone application or downloaded maps. Maps can also be printed from the Game and Fish website.

"I can post my land in the time it takes me to find my stapler," said Erbele, a rancher.

The app allows hunters to determine a point of contact on posted land, allowing them to call or email for permission.

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The bill would allow landowners who want to post their land to do so easily and affordably while allowing landowners who don't want to post the freedom to maintain the status quo, said interim committee member Brian Schanilec, of Forest River, a landowner, hunter and member of numerous sportsmen's clubs.

Schanilec is a strong hunting advocate who believes North Dakota's accessible land helps keep tradition alive in a sport that is shrinking nationwide. As a farmer and landowner, he posts some land and leaves other parcels open for access.

"I think we have some momentum with this," Schanilec said. "I've heard it has 'hallway support' at the Capitol. Some legislators would like to take care of this because it comes up every session and they would like to not spend so much time on it. They have other things they'd like to be working on."

The second draft bill would keep the interim committee intact to guide the rollout of electronic posting and work out any potential kinks in future legislative sessions.

Erbele deems the third proposal "a work in progress," addressing property rights concerns outside of hunting access. Some landowners, like Schletter, believe criminal trespass on their property is as big of an issue as hunting.

"I think what we're doing gives more benefit from the sportsmen's side of it than other concerns. Unfortunately, it doesn't address enough on the criminal trespass side of it," he said.

Schletter said he has as many problems with non-hunters as hunters on his ranch in the Badlands of western North Dakota. He said he's had tour buses drop off hikers, people camping without permission and snowmobiles damaging his pastures.

"I'm in the camp that believes private land is private land, and I think we need to do more to address that," Schletter said.

Readers can reach Forum columnist Mike McFeely at mmcfeely@forumcomm.com or 701-451-5655