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Unhappy hunters mobilize against Hoeven re-election
By Janell Cole, The Forum
Published Monday, May 31, 2004
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BISMARCK – For some North Dakota hunters, the governor's race presents a "do-or-die situation" in which the state's hunting could be forever ruined if John Hoeven is re-elected.

Many are mobilizing to defeat the one-term Republican governor in November.

Two hunting groups have voted to endorse his opponent, Democrat Joe Satrom, and some staunch Republicans are defecting.

"When our club voted to endorse Joe Satrom, there were several lifelong Republicans who said they've never before voted for a Democrat and they plan to vote for Joe Satrom," said John French of Grand Forks. The vote was unanimous and the Grand Forks County Wildlife Federation's first political endorsement in its 50-year history.

French, the club's past president, has donated to Satrom's campaign and appeared with him at a news conference.

The depth and breadth of anti-Hoeven sentiment definitely" may sway the election's outcome, said Sandy Barnes of Jamestown, executive director of the North Dakota Sportsmen's Alliance. Its board has voted to endorse Satrom.

It was Barnes who termed the Hoeven hunting situation as "do or die."

The anger comes from several of Hoeven's actions on hunting issues, including his failure – in critics' eyes – to put meaningful caps on non-resident waterfowl hunters and his aborted decision to change the pheasant season opener at the request of Regent outfitters the Cannonball Co.

"We have an opportunity – and Joe understands this – to preserve the best of the best," Barnes said. "Governor Hoeven doesn't see it that way. He sees it (hunting) as economic development."

Barnes said with an estimated 120,000 hunters in the state, "if Joe can get two-thirds of those people to vote for him, Hoeven's got a problem."

Satrom said he has been listening to unhappy sportsmen since he began exploring the race a year ago.

"I'm hearing it every day," he said.

Hoeven supporters say the malcontents do not represent most hunters in the state.

"I think it's a small vocal minority making more noise than the larger majority of people who think it's been managed well," said Cory Fong, Hoeven's campaign director. Of course Hoeven thinks it is an important issue, he said. "That's why he's put so much emphasis into PLOTs," a reference to a program opening private land to hunters.

"Everyone hasn't got what they wanted," Fong said. "Sometimes a leader needs to do what's right."

Fong believes people will vote on whether they feel satisfied with Hoeven's total performance on all issues.

Mike Donahue of Bismarck, a member of the Lewis and Clark Wildlife Club and lobbyist on behalf of hunting groups during legislative sessions, said anger that shows up in hunter's postings on Internet forums such as comes from a pretty small percentage of the people.

"I don't know anybody banging their fists on the wall," he said.

Hunting clubs are making a mistake by endorsing candidates, he said.

Devils Lake resort owner Kyle Blanchfield, like Donahue, says Hoeven has done a good job on hunting issues.

"I think the resident sportsmen are forgetting about all the positive things Governor Hoeven has provided them in the last three and a half years," Blanchfield said. Hoeven tried to strike a balance and provide a compromise on the duck hunting controversy, he said.

In 2002, Hoeven assented to an earlier pheasant opener when asked by the Cannonball Co., which hosted a Hoeven political fund-raiser the previous fall.

Resident hunters are at odds with fee-hunting outfits like Cannonball because those operations lease up hunting lands and bar all but their own customers on that acreage. After weeks of controversy, which became known as "pheasantgate," Hoeven relented.

"We had our disagreement with Hoeven on the opening of pheasant season, but that's behind us now," Donahue said.

Hoeven often speaks with pride about his project to increase access for hunters on private land, which he says has gone from 160,000 acres to a half-million acres in two years.

But waterfowl hunters, especially, feel their sport is threatened if Hoeven stays in office. "We'll have depleted the resource," Barnes said.

Barnes and others say employees at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department used a biological formula called the hunter-pressure concept to recommend a cap of 18,500 nonresident waterfowl hunters for the 2002 season. Hoeven instead put the cap at 30,000, just a handful fewer than the number of nonresidents who had licenses in 2001.

Partially true, said Dean Hildebrand, director of Game and Fish. When it was proposed at 18,500, "he (Hoeven) felt that was too severe a cut."

Hoeven and the department looked at several different formulas calling for between 18,500 and 30,000, "and worked that formula back and forth" before 30,000 was mutually agreed upon, Hildebrand said.

"I think he came into a kind of compromise position," he said of the governor.

Hoeven also pushed for an earlier duck hunting opener with the first week set aside for resident hunters only, Hildebrand said.

It doesn't placate those who think the state is allowing an alarming number of out-of-state duck hunters. Already, said Barnes, many ducks are overflying the state.

"The ducks have already learned that. They cannot take the pressure," he said. Duck hunters in northern South Dakota are benefiting, Barnes and other Hoeven critics say.

Many hunters also believe Hoeven has put a gag order on the staff of the Game and Fish Department.

Hildebrand says otherwise.

"I've never received any kind of gag order from the governor," he said. "I don't recall him ever stifling me about what I could say or couldn't say."

His staff, likewise, is free to speak publicly, Hildebrand said.

Barnes scoffs at that notion.

"The fact of the matter is, we know better," he said. The staff got the message, "if you want to keep your job, don't get involved."

Hildebrand said it pains him to hear of groups making endorsements.

"I would hope it wouldn't get to be a political issue, because I think the governor has done a really good job," he said.

Sen. Tom Fischer, R-Fargo, said hunters should stop and think about what the consequences might be when they step into a partisan race.

"My take on this is, be careful of what you wish for," said the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. If hunters are successful and Satrom is elected with the help of hunters, "what's going to be the ramifications in the next (Republican-controlled) Legislature?"

That's an unacceptable threat of retaliation, say Barnes and French, who insists anti-Hoeven hunters in Fargo have been muzzled by Fischer.

The leasing of pheasant acreage can't be undone by Hoeven's private lands initiatives, said Kevin Hayer of Fargo, who has studied the hunting in the Private Lands Open to Sportsmen program.

Nearly half of all pheasant hunting is done in five counties, Hayer said, and four are southwest of the Missouri River. But those counties contain less than 10 percent of the PLOTS acreage, he said. And while more public-access acres are added to PLOTS and other such programs, many more were leased for fee hunting, the hunters said.

Mark Hamilton of Minot voted for Hoeven four years ago but isn't sure he will again.

"Hoeven is a friend of mine," he said. "I think he's done a good job on just about everything. I think the whole hunting issue has been grossly mishandled. He shouldn't have gotten so personally involved in it."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Janell Cole at (701) 224-0830

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