BELFIELD, N.D. — Just southwest of Belfield, hidden in those rolling pastures of ranchland and protected by the buttes and valleys that foreshadow the prehistoric formations of the Badlands, lies a patch of federal land that is, according to local ranchers, under attack.
As one rancher whose property can be found not two miles from the pasture said. “It’s disrespect and disregard for the land and the people who lease that land.” The rancher wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal against his livestock by hunters.
Evidence of the coarseness that rattles this rancher can be found throughout the neighboring patches of land to his property: pronounced ruts in the shape of truck tires, some up to 10 inches deep, criss-cross the mud chaotically, all but completely destroying a generations-old dirt road used for work, not play.
“This was just a two-track trail before,” the man said, dispirited as he clutched the disfigured road’s cold, moist mud. “It was just a pickup trail that was probably used three times a year — now look at it.”
The main suspect in this case of environmental vandalism? According to ranchers in the area, it’s irreverent hunters.
Since the start of North Dakota’s open deer season, which ended this past weekend, some farmers and ranchers out west have noticed an increase of flippant maltreatment to the land they have worked and used for as long as they can remember.
“There’s a lot more wear and tear on the land than there used to be, when people used to come out with their two-wheel drive pickups and park on the road and go hunting,” another rancher, in fear of retaliatory hunters killing his stock, told The Press. “Now with modern ATVs and everything, there’s starting to be a lot more damage to the prairie and it’s sad.”
“We would never travel on these roads during wet weather because we don’t want to tear it up,” he continued. “But for some reason, the new generation of hunters just want to drive their pickups around...This is all public land, yes, but it isn’t to be abused like it is this year.”
The grievances of these unnamed ranchers doesn’t appear to be with hunting or hunters in general, but rather a blatant disregard by some hunters for the land on which they stand. Many of these same landowners are proud, but concerned hunters themselves.
While Billings County Sheriff Pat Rummel agrees that roads have taken a particular beating this season, he differs on the general maliciousness of visitors to the area.
“It only takes a few bad apples to ruin it for everybody,” Rummel added. “It’s not all hunters, but when you see stuff like that, the perception is that it’s all hunters. By no means is it all hunters, but some do ruin it for everybody.”
“Unfortunately, it gets bad this time of year because many hunters are out there hunting the federal land because it is open to the public,” he said. “It’s been wetter than usual, warmer than usual, but you’d wish that the hunters would respect the fact that (the land) is soft, that its nice out, and get out and walk instead of driving everywhere.”
Al Tagestad, an avid outdoorsman based in North Dakota, agreed that real conservationists would do more walking than driving in the wilderness, but also understood the root cause of the issue.
“One doesn’t get to go out to hunt at every chance, and all of the sudden you have the opportunity... sometimes, I think people tend to press it a little bit,” Tagestad said of the ravaged country roads. “It doesn’t serve anyone well to drive some of those kinds of roads when they’re wet and there’s no question that hunters should use their discretion when they’re driving private roads.”
Speaking to the damage, Tagestad said that when some hunters take their four-wheel drive vehicles through wet ranchland, they forget about the conservational spirit of hunting.
“A lot of times, people are vandalistic and I don’t know what to say about them except for that I hate the blackeyes that they give to everybody else. Personally, I walk a lot,” Tagestad said. “I’m not afraid to walk over the hill, particularly if it seems like nobody has walked over there. It makes it that much better for me.”
Treva Slaughter, public affairs officers for the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, an organization governed by the U.S. Forest Service, was just as adamant in asking hunters to be aware of the way they travel.
“There are a lot of roads out there in the grasslands; roads that people normally do drive on in average conditions,” Slaughter admitted. “Right now, because of the moisture and the warm weather that we’ve had, they’re kind of taking a beating.”
“Not only do motorists have a higher risk of getting stuck and therefore being stranded out there, but it does also cause severe rutting and damage to the roads that can affect the safety of the roads and trails,” she said.
However, Slaughter was careful to remind residents that, since the land in question is federally owned, it is public property.
“The National Forest System is public and it belongs to everyone,” Slaughter said. “That means you could go to a pasture, a section of land that is managed by the National Forest System and you could see a hunter, a horseback rider, an oil rig and cattle all on that same spot.”
“So we have asked, and that’s all we can do is ask, that recreationists keep their vehicles on those roads that are primary and secondary highways throughout the grasslands,” she concluded.
“Try to be respectful of the land, in particular the grasslands,” Sheriff Rummel said. “Do not go out there and tear those roads up because it really puts a bad light on all hunters and we know that’s not true. We know it’s not everybody.”