By John Bradley
North Dakota in the fall can be a hunter’s paradise. With opportunities for mule and white-tailed deer, sharptailed grouse and pheasant, waterfowl and turkey, North Dakota historically has provided something for every type of hunter. People travel from around the world to hunt in North Dakota for our bountiful wildlife, hospitality, and our historic hunter friendly access laws, but if we don’t fund the programs that create that paradise, it will soon be a thing of the past.
North Dakota has long been a state that allows hunting access on private land without permission unless that land is physically posted. Every legislative session for the past 20 years, including the 2019 session, sportsmen saw a bill introduced to change the law to all land is considered closed to hunting access regardless of posting status. In 2019 the total closure bill failed, but a related bill established an Interim Committee to study access on private and public land.
The Interim Committee drafted the electronic posting bill that passed the 2021 Legislature and extended the Interim Legislative Committee for two additional years. After two years, the electronic posting system that allows the landowner flexibility to electronically post or physically post their land has been a success for both landowners and hunters. Landowners get a cost and time effective way to post their land, and with 56% of landowners including contact information, sportsmen and women have an easier time obtaining access to posted land.
Where the Access Committee and Legislature has failed, however, is considering other ways to improve access to quality public and private lands for hunters.
What Sportsmen Need
The Access Committee has met only twice in the last year with no future meetings planned before the 2023 Legislature. The committee only seemed to be interested in addressing electronic posting, leaving the other access issues unresolved. If access is to be improved, then sportsmen, Game & Fish, and the legislature must address specific issues facing hunters. A place to start is to look at ways to open up land-locked or hard to access public lands, allowing NDGF the autonomy to purchase land using their approved budget, and addressing the onerous hoops that non-government organizations must jump through to purchase land for public access.
Unfortunately, all the above issues would require new programs, law changes, and a major change in attitude from our legislators. That would take a tremendous lift from North Dakota sportsmen. If we want to improve access immediately, hunters should be calling on the legislature to support and increase funding for the Private Lands Open To Sportsmen (PLOTS) program. PLOTS is an agreement between the private landowner and Game and Fish which allows walk-in public access for hunting on private land. With over 800,00 acres enrolled, PLOTS is incredibly popular with hunters and landowners, but the current acreage doesn’t meet the demand from hunters or landowners who want to see more of the landscape enrolled in PLOTS.
In regard to quality habitat, the Outdoor Heritage Fund which began in 2013, has been the premier program to increase habitat, wildlife, and sporting opportunities in North Dakota. The program was established to “provide grants to state agencies, tribal governments, political subdivisions, and nonprofit organizations, with higher priority given to projects that enhance conservation practices.” Since its inception OHF grants have proven valuable to a variety of projects on both private and public land. The OHF, which is funded from oil and gas production tax revenue, supports projects such as access to public and private lands for sportsmen, farming and ranching stewardship practices, fish and wildlife habitat improvements and outdoor recreation area improvements. Unfortunately, the legislature has placed an artificial cap on the Outdoor Heritage Fund, limiting the program to only $15 million a biennium. The artificial cap could be increased or lifted completely with a simple bill from the legislature.
Act for Access
A lack of access to quality habitat is routinely listed as the number one reason hunters quit hunting. If we want to keep North Dakota as a hunter’s paradise, we need more access to better habitat. If we are going to maintain our reputation as a hunter’s paradise, we better have spots where hunters can go and find game. State and federal agencies should work on opening new lands for hunting. States should also be looking to increase their private land access programs, a popular option for both landowners and sportsmen. Here in North Dakota, the state legislature meets every two years. The lead up to the 2023 session is a perfect opportunity for sportsmen to contact their state representatives and senators and demand an increase in PLOTS acres and an increase in funding for the Outdoor Heritage Fund. The time to call is now. If we want to secure North Dakota’s rich hunting tradition for future generations, hunters need to get involved and hold their legislators accountable.
ND legislators can be contacted via phone at: 1-888-NDLEGIS. Legislators can be emailed at: https://www.ndlegis.gov/legend/constituent/views/public/contact_legislator/
John Bradley is a Dakota Edge Outdoors contributing writer and the Executive Director of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation.
Featured Photo: Accessible. The author and his dog pause with a pair of pheasants from a PLOTS parcel. Funding for expansion of hunting areas is important in preserving North Dakota’s outdoor heritage. DEO Photo by John Bradley.