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29
FAIR CHASE: The road hunting debate
Hunter education and enforcement officials weigh in on a familiar frustration
By Brad Dokken
Herald Staff Writer

When Jim Carter talks about hunting, he talks about the joy of being outdoors, spending time with friends and family and taking in all that nature has to offer.

It's a philosophy that guided Carter to some memorable moments Nov. 21, the last day of North Dakota's regular firearms deer season. During a 5½-hour stretch between noon and nightfall, Carter sat on post and watched skeins of snow geese fly overhead. He heard coyotes yelping at sundown and marveled at a sunset he says he'll never forget.

As Hunter Education supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, Carter oversees a program that teaches young hunters about gun safety and ethics. In that role, he occasionally hears the complaints about road hunting, a practice that's legal in North Dakota, yet one that always stirs emotions after deer season.

Consider this message a Grand Forks deer hunter recently posted to the outdoors forum on the Herald's Web site:

"I really need to vent on some people. Several times this year while we have been walking fields and pushing shelter belts, we have had other hunters drive up and park near our vehicle waiting for a chance to shoot at a deer that we kick out. If I may, I'd like to say to these road hunters, 'If you're too lazy to get out of your truck and find your own deer, stay home!'"

Familiar story

The writer's tale is one of many bouncing around coffee shops and other places deer hunters gather to trade stories after hunting season. In many ways, his frustration gets to the heart of what the hunt should be about in the first place. It also plays into the perceptions non-hunters have toward deer hunting.

"It certainly is very unethical in terms of pursuing the game," Carter said. "If a person going from one spot to another happens upon a deer, that isn't necessarily road hunting. But if you strictly do that up to, and including, having your loaded gun, and that's all you do, it isn't hunting in the true sense.

"But society has developed a lot of different ways to hunt."

Therein lies the dilemma, at least in North Dakota. Under state law, hunters are allowed to carry uncased, loaded firearms as long as no shell is in the chamber. They also can shoot from roadways onto private land if the property isn't posted and no one lives within 440 yards.

Quieter than most

North Dakota game wardens say this deer season was quieter than most for road hunting complaints. Gary Rankin, Game and Fish district game warden in Larimore, N.D., said he issued only two citations that involved road hunting - one for trespass and another for hunting too close to an occupied building.

"It's practically never intentional," Rankin said. "The opportunity arises, and they take advantage of it without knowing what's around them - what the posting situation is or buildings behind a grove of trees. Something presents itself on the spur of the moment and without a lot of forethought, they take advantage."

Gene Masse, district game warden in New Rockford, N.D., said most of the road hunters he encountered were aiming to capitalize on late-season combining operations driving the deer out of standing corn and sunflower fields.

"There's always a bunch of that with the combines going; there's pickups lining the roads," Masse said. "Some of those landowners don't like it, but I don't know of any problems that were caused, per se. Some places, the landowners didn't care. They had permission to be there."

Another critic

Joe Solseng of Grand Forks is among the many critics of road hunting. A Grand Forks landowner, sportsman and hunter education instructor, Solseng says the practice can lead to such problems as trespass violations and injuries.

Like the Game and Fish Department's Carter, Solseng questions the ethics of road hunting.

"I hear too many pickups driving down the road 65 mph, and you hear the brakes come on, and the doors open - boom, boom! - and the doors slam and they take off," Solseng said. "That bothers me. To be just driving around looking for deer, it's a good way to find deer. But to abuse it by using the vehicle to pursue, which often happens, ethically I don't think it's right."

Solseng says legislation requiring that guns be cased inside a vehicle would curb road-hunting problems. At the same time, he says, such a law could hamper ranchers in western North Dakota who carry uncased guns to more effectively control coyotes and other predators.

Rep. Bob Hunskor, D-Newburg, considered introducing legislation last session to require guns be cased while in a vehicle, but the plan didn't get very far. In the short term, at least, that leaves education as the best tool to keep road-hunting problems in check.

"If you go to a farmer, open your door with guns flopping around and you ask for permission, you're not portraying very good citizenship as far as being a hunter," Solseng said. "If you've got it in a case, you're showing some responsibility, and that's what we tell the kids. Granted, it's not law, but that's what we try and promote. It's the best PR you can have."

Minnesota approach

While North Dakota laws encourage road hunting, Minnesota has taken a harder line. Firearms must be unloaded and cased while in a vehicle, for example, and shooting at big game from a roadway is illegal. Still, conservation officers encounter plenty of road hunting violations, especially toward the end of deer season.

Call it human nature.

"After a while, hunters get bored with waiting in a tree stand, and they start roaming around trying to look for an easy deer," said Capt. Roger Tietz, regional enforcement supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. "I think it's safe to say you can run into it anywhere. And if there's private land that's locked up, and a deer comes up to the edge of that, that gets to be a temptation."

Besides ethics, Tietz says road hunting creates other problems as hunters try to avoid being detected. Most violations also involve alcohol, he says, a mix that only accelerates the risks.

"It sets up that domino effect where safety goes out the window," Tietz said. "They'll have a loaded gun in the confined compartment of a car, there's the adrenaline rush of seeing a deer, and it just starts coming down to that situation where the factors lead toward an accident."

But if laws and education don't always work, perhaps those prone to road-hunting should consider these words from Carter of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department:

"Don't we spend enough time in our vehicles?" he asks. "Aren't we out there trying to exercise and enjoy a little of our country and get a little fresh air? You really can't do that behind a windshield."

With gas at nearly $2 a gallon, his logic is hard to dispute.


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Contact Dokken at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 extension 148, or by e-mail at bdokken@gfherald.com.

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