Compromisethe 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 huntersa 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 resourcesparticularly waterfowl, which
includes all varieties of geese, brant, swans, ducks, rails and
cootsand ultimately is not worth the tourism-based economic
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 huntersa task
that seems more daunting with each passing hunting season.
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 checkerboardopen here and not thereand
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,"
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
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
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
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
industriesall without upsetting mother nature and the sacred