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Hunting for a solution

Resident and nonresident hunters duel over the benefits of state game resources

July 1, 2002


Hunting for a solution

Compromise—the key to any good relationship, including those involving ducks. But when either side is unwilling to compromise, the headaches begin, or in this case, feathers get ruffled.

Officials at North Dakota's Game and Fish Department (NDGF), along with Gov. John Hoeven and others, are trying to settle the great hunting compromise between die-hard North Dakota sporting groups and nonresident hunters—a debate that also touches the state's tourism and hospitality industries, farmers and landowners.

More outsiders than ever are hunting in the state. That's good, at least for some. Motels and restaurants fill up, sporting goods stores sell merchandise, farmers get paid for access to their land, and the state reaps revenue from licenses as well as all taxable activity once hunters enter the state.

But in-state sporting groups say there are too many outsiders harvesting too much of the state's resources—particularly waterfowl, which includes all varieties of geese, brant, swans, ducks, rails and coots—and ultimately is not worth the tourism-based economic benefit.

Nonresident hunters have been flocking to the state for a simple reason: great hunting. North Dakota is in the middle of a prairie pothole region, which provides the wet conditions critical for ducks' reproduction. Duck numbers have been up, and the current limit is six ducks per day.

In 2001, North Dakota saw nonresident waterfowl hunters jump from about 25,000 hunters in 2000 to almost 30,000, most of whom come from Minnesota and Wisconsin. That number is slowly creeping up on the number of instate hunters, which dropped slightly from 36,000 resident hunters in 2000 to 34,000 last year. The waterfowl hunting season begins around October and lasts for about 60 days.

That's just ducky for some people, like property owners who market their land as a pristine hunting spot to lure tourists to their small towns. On the other side of the pond, many native hunting enthusiasts feel out-of-state hunters have driven up the access price of private hunting land and overcrowded public hunting lands. In the middle is the NDGF, which is trying to find the common ground between the state's resident and nonresident hunters—a task that seems more daunting with each passing hunting season.

Pinched out?

Private hunting land makes up a small portion of the total hunting land in North Dakota. There are 4.5 million acres of state- and federal-owned land open to hunting of all types, along with another 2.5 million acres of other public land; that's about 17 percent of the entire state.

In contrast, hunting is allowed on just 165,000 acres of private land, and the return of good waterfowl hunting has coincided with a slow privatization of prime, local hunting grounds over the last 25 years and become a major issue with instate hunters, according to local sources. Good hunting has also pushed up the price both residents and nonresidents are willing to pay for good-hunting farmland.

There are 600 fewer farms in Ramsey County (which includes the Devils Lake area) than in 1975, said Randy Frost, executive vice president of the Devils Lake Chamber of Commerce. The farms are much larger, and the influx of hunters makes it more difficult for residents to hunt on their neighbor's farmland. "Farmers want to make a profit from hunters, so they give land access to the highest bidder. ... [Resident] sportsmen feel as though they're being pinched out," he said.

Some farmers are receiving double the current value of their wildlife-rich land from hunters. Farmland in Hettinger County that would normally sell for $200 to $270 per acre was sold for $500 an acre because of hunting potential. But there are trade-offs. Higher prices for good-hunting farmland has pushed up the land prices for farmers still in the business who want to expand their operations.

"I've had a couple of neighbors who quit farming because of the high land prices,"said Mark Resner, a Hettinger County resident. Land values vary depending on the pheasant population, he said, and "when the pheasant population declines, [potential buyers] aren't going to pay $500 an acre."

Resner got involved in the hunting-land issue when he attended a legislative meeting last January. Legislators asked for the number of absentee landowners in eight counties. When only two replied, Resner took it upon himself to investigate. "Most of the time, when people are silent, they're covering up something," he said.

There are over 80 farmers in Hettinger County who are charging people to hunt on their land, according to Resner, and 35 farmers have official commercial hunting operations. Many farmers hope to derive as much as one-third of their mortgage payment from commercial hunting.

Resident hunters are also fuming over absentee landowners who are in town to hunt for a few days of the season. When they're not there, access to hunting land is like a checkerboard—open here and not there—and area hunters sometimes drive game into private property in which they do not have access.

To avoid a shoot-out between the groups, many proposals are in the works to appease state hunters, yet still allow some nonresident hunting. The department is looking for plans that have staying power and don't need constant tinkering. "This is not a biological issue. It's a social issue, a resource allocation issue, a quality of life issue and an economic issue," said Randy Kreil, NDGF wildlife division chief. "Both sides have polarized to all-or-nothing positions, which makes it very difficult to compromise."

Currently, there are no restrictions on resident and nonresident waterfowl licenses for North Dakota, but various sporting groups are calling for a two-thirds reduction on the number of nonresident waterfowl hunters. Frost has proposed an alternative to using a set cap: Take the total number of nonresident waterfowl hunters and spread those hunters out over the month of October, possibly even November. "Rather than taking hunters away, it's better to spread them out and still have the economic benefit," Frost said.

Mike Donahue, a lobbyist for the United Sportsmen of North Dakota and the North Dakota Wildlife Federation, said, "We look at it as taking care of the North Dakota resident first, and if we have room, we'll take care of the nonresident."

A year ago, the groups Donahue represents were willing to settle at 25,000 nonresident waterfowl hunters. But now, based on a North Dakota survey of 700 instate waterfowl hunters who said public lands were being overwhelmed, there has been a proposal to reduce the nonresident waterfowl cap to 10,500. "In my opinion, the cap will end up being more like 20,000 to 25,000 and an adjustment in licensing fees, which could make up for the loss of nonresident hunters," said Donahue, who will propose a lottery system along with the caps.

Donahue said the tourism impact of a nonresident cap on hunting would be mitigated by the fact that many resident hunters travel to other parts of the state. "A lot of eastern North Dakotans travel west. [Tourism] isn't all nonresidents," he said, adding, "For economic development you need to have more stable conditions. ... Some folks think we don't care about the survival of small towns, but they need to have something more than a pheasant to hang their hat on."

By the end of this summer, the governor's office and the director of the NDGF will have held eight advisory meetings across the state to gather public opinion before implementing new regulations. "Right now we are analyzing changes for the governor for possible changes this year and for the future. Changes made this year may not be the same type of changes for 2003." Kreil said, adding that they may or may not make recommendations for any one proposal.

Some believe such tinkering is not likely to solve the problem. One bill seeks to limit nonresident waterfowl hunters to 10,000, and to divide the state into eight zones, said state Sen. Mike Every, who is also mayor of Minnewaukan, population 370, located 30 miles west of Devils Lake.

"They're ridiculous proposals. There is a solution that will help with the problem down in the eastern and southeastern part of the state. Jamestown is right on the interstate ... the majority of nonresidents end up in that area. They may only want 5,000 hunters, but [the Devils Lake region] can support more than that. We're willing to work on it. ... It's our feeling that if they're going to enforce caps, we're going to hold tight until there's some compromise," Every said.

Limitations can be useful for restricting certain aspects of hunting, but some fear that making things too complicated may ultimately limit everybody's access. "The person who's going to have the final say in this matter is the landowner," Every said. "If landowners are restricted too much, they're going to get fed up and say, 'If I can't make money on my land by means other than agriculture, I'm going to post it up and nobody's going to hunt on it, residents or nonresidents.'"

Let your conscience be your guide

Guided hunting has grown rapidly in the last decade and has contributed to the tension. In 1990 there were 82 licensed guides and outfitters in North Dakota. This year there were 298, according to the NDGF. Donahue, the hunting lobbyist, estimated that more than twice that number guide without a license.

"Some of them are crooks,"he said, noting that some guides charge $1,200 for a two-day pheasant hunt and allow hunters to take well over their legal limit. As a result, some have stricter regulation for guided hunts in their sights. The NDGF, for example, is working to redefine a guide or outfitter, and stiffer requirements might be required to obtain a guide license.

One of the largest guided hunting businesses in the state is Cannonball Co. in Regent. The company started in 1991 with a group of local farmers who got together during tough times and low commodity prices. In its first year, Cannonball handled 56 hunts. (A hunt is one person hunting one day.) This past year, Cannonball handled 1,200 hunting days and sold about $20,000 in hunting licenses. At $200 a day, the activity produced roughly $250,000 in revenue a year, spread among 50 shareholders and guides.

Board member Barb Mayer and her husband, Vern, farm and own the Dancing Dakota bed-and-breakfast. They were among Cannonball's early organizers. The Mayers own 1,250 acres of land and about 250 acres are heavily hunted by Cannonball. Barb Mayer estimates the income from hunters accounts for one-fifth of their net annual income.

Cannonball manager Pat Candrian is concerned about the current debate to restrict nonresident waterfowl hunters. "If they restrict waterfowl [hunters], the next thing they'll want to do is restrict pheasant hunters," which accounts for 95 percent of the hunting on Candrian's property. Restricting hunters would be "disastrous to small-town North Dakota," he said.

Next door

Neighboring states have different approaches to regulating hunters. South Dakota is one of the stricter states in the district. For the past 15 years, it has offered a limited number of waterfowl nonresident licenses: 4,000 10-day licenses, which are valid statewide; and 2,000 three-day licenses, good for five counties. Two hundred licenses are season-long for nonresidents. One change for the 2002 hunting season allows 500 of the three-day license holders to hunt in nine counties in the northeast corner of the state, in addition to the Missouri River area, according to Al Jockheck, licensing supervisor with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.

Looser regulations can be found in Wisconsin, where there is no cap on nonresident hunters and no plans to restrict them. They do, however, have problems with nonresidents who have a second home in Wisconsin trying to obtain a resident's license. There are fines in place for that, and those who attempt to do so could lose their hunting privilege within the state.

In Montana's 2001 legislative session, nonresident licenses were increased to match other rates in the region. "So now we're at average rates in this area," said Ron Aasheim, administrator of conservation and education for Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The department conducted a survey in 2000 comparing Montana license prices with other states in the region. Based on that study, hunting license fees were increased by an average of 30 percent across the board. For 2002, waterfowl licenses will cost $50 for nonresidents, with no restrictions, and $5 for residents. About half of the $48 million budget for the state wildlife division comes from nonresident license fees.

There are no plans to cap nonresident hunters in Minnesota. The state does not allow nonresidents to hunt moose (residents only), but for all remaining game, nonresidents enter lotteries for hunting licenses, just as residents do. All hunting fees go to support fish and wildlife programs.

"Minnesota has a strong tourism industry. We would never do anything to detour tourists," said Tim Bremicker, director of the Minnesota Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Tourism dollars are putting a high value on [North Dakota] wetlands. It seems [nonresident hunters] would be helping the state. I find regulations to limit nonresident hunters very disconcerting. ... What goes around comes around. I don't want to see that happening within the states," Bremicker said.

All district states have felt controversies in one form or another surrounding hunting issues, and all are curious to see what new regulations North Dakota will establish in order to mollify its sporting groups, nonresident hunters, landowners and hospitality industries—all without upsetting mother nature and the sacred tourism dollar.