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N. Dakota has love-hate relationship with non-resident hunters


Knight Ridder Newspapers

ASHLEY, N.D. - (KRT) - A few years ago, duck hunter Chris Winchester stumbled across this small farming community on the prairie and found it to his liking.

The nearby sloughs were populated with plenty of ducks and geese, the fields had a healthy population of pheasants, and there didn't appear to be many hunters around.

Last fall, Winchester and two friends decided they liked Ashley enough to buy a house. After a Realtor showed them nearly a dozen houses - most of them empty - they finally plunked down $3,500 for a two-story fixer-upper on the edge of town.

"We weren't interested in making any money; we were just tired of paying for motels,'' said Josh Dockter, 24, one of the partners in the house. "My shotgun costs more than what I have in the house. I wouldn't call it a big risk."

What's notable is the three hunters aren't North Dakota residents. They live in Cannon Falls, Minn., about 460 miles away and a half-day drive from Ashley, population 842.

Moreover, their status as nonresidents puts them squarely in the middle of the social and legal battle being waged over North Dakota's nonresident hunting rules.

In 2003, the North Dakota Legislature passed a bevy of rules, including increases in license fees and season restrictions, designed to limited the number of nonresident hunters in their state. The move was in part a reaction to resident hunters who felt the recent crush of nonresidents was squeezing them out of hunting opportunities.

In March, Minnesota responded with legal action when Attorney General Mike Hatch sued North Dakota, alleging the nonresident rules were discriminatory under interstate commerce rules. A judge is expected to hear the case this spring.

Winchester said he doesn't like North Dakota's restrictions, but they didn't affect his decision to continue coming to North Dakota. His licenses for waterfowl and pheasants have doubled in price ($185), and he's restricted to hunting ducks just 14 days per license, but it's a singular devotion to duck and pheasant hunting that keeps him returning.

"I think the new rules have deterred some guys, but I honestly right now have a hard time finding two weeks to hunt ducks as it is,'' he said. "Let's face it: We're driving a $35,000 truck, and we're towing a $10,000 boat. With all the guns and equipment we have, what's $200 for a license?"

Dockter isn't pleased with the license fees, either, but he admitted he probably would buy two pheasant licenses this year because they are good for only 10 days. "I guess I wouldn't mind so much if the licenses would last the whole season,'' he said.

Nonresident hunters are a topic of discussion among Ashley residents and business owners, and it's a paradoxical debate.

By all accounts, Ashley is struggling. Because of a weak farm economy, its population is aging and declining. The population dropped by 40 residents from 2000 to 2002, according to census figures, and the median age for residents is 64. (The median age of Americans is 36.)

Still, Ashley has a vibrant side; it still has a restaurant, a gas station and two taverns, and recently a coffee shop opened. The streets and lawns are tidy, and there's some new-home construction.

Paul Miller, a retired farmer, owns the Dakota Family Restaurant. He said few young people are left in town because there aren't any jobs. That's why he likes to see the wave of nonresident hunters come to Ashley every fall.

"About 75 percent of my business this time of year is from hunters,'' he said, adding it would be difficult to keep the restaurant open without hunters' business. "It impacts everybody in a small town like this."

Miller also recited the origins of license plates he sees each fall in Ashley. They include Wisconsin, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maine, New York, Florida, Minnesota and Nebraska.

"Some of the hunters have been coming here for years, but I know with the new laws, some won't come back,'' he said. "We have seen a lot of new faces every year."

Tony Bender is the publisher of the Ashley Tribune newspaper. He sees both sides of the nonresident debate.

"Most of the business people in town are very much in support of having (nonresident hunters) in town, but we have some people, some outdoorsmen, who feel threatened by the nonresidents.

"Now that the hunting season has started, we've noticed a little bump in our businesses. We know nonresidents are good for gas stations, the caf‚, the stores and the bars. But there is resentment from people who feel their territory, their pheasants, are being threatened."

Tony Punzel of Escanaba, Mich., was in town recently for pheasant hunting. While sipping a beer in Kirk's Detour, a local tavern, Punzel said his group of six hunters didn't flinch much at the restrictions.

"It's a vacation,'' he said. "Would I come out twice to hunt pheasants? Probably not. I think it's a pretty good deal, actually. But I'm seeing more 'no trespassing' signs. My friends are equating it to South Dakota in terms of the hunting getting more commercialized."

Bartender LaVonne Walker, who owns Kirk's with her husband, said nonresidents keep her business alive during the fall. "The locals are great, and they pay the bills, but look around,'' she said at the bar, which was bustling with patrons on a Saturday night. "If it wasn't for these guys (nonresident hunters), we'd be dead by 10 at night. They help me survive the winter."

Winchester said he's not the only nonresident who owns a house in town. "A bunch of Wisconsin hunters bought five of them last year,'' he said. "There aren't as many empty houses left because they've all been bought up by nonresidents.

"The ones I looked at ran between $1,000 and $7,000, but I don't think there's anything like that left now. But those houses we looked at, they were all empty. Most of the people had moved to Bismarck or Aberdeen (S.D.)."

During a recent hunting trip, Winchester and his friends shot ducks and pheasants in the fields and sloughs near Ashley, ate at Paul Miller's Dakota Family Restaurant and drank beer at Kirk's Detour. They spent several hundred dollars on food and gasoline at other local businesses.

Winchester said he likes the small-town atmosphere and the friends he has made in Ashley. He plans to keep coming back.

"At least, while the duck hunting holds out,'' he said. "But I'm already seeing more and more guys at my favorite spots."


© 2004, St. Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.).

Visit the World Wide Web site of the Pioneer Press at

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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