A few weeks ago, I joined some friends of the Shire and hunted pheasant on opening weekend in western North Dakota. Not only was it a glorious time, but it brought home some timely lessons on how private customs and informal arrangements can work even in complex situations.
One of the interesting things about hunting in North Dakota is that all land is public unless specifically posted as private. At least where we were, about half the land is open to everyone. Where the private land is closed, you can still hunt it if you know the owner, know someone who does, or if you ask real nice (which works better if, like some hunters I met from Alaska, agree to throw in some salmon filets). So, even if you own nothing but a shotgun and an orange hat, you can hunt on some of the world’s best pheasant hunting land.
North Dakota’s largely informal hunting system shouldn’t work. People should be too greedy and selfish to allow their land the be hunted for free. Fights (especially among people with guns) should have broken out long ago and scared everyone into posting their land as private. A well-meaning legislature should have passed a detailed set of laws and regulations detailing what land can be hunted by whom. Yet, none of that has happened. Instead, a largely informal, private system has emerged — and it works. Thousands of landowners and tens of thousands of hunters have figured out how to protect private property while creating opportunities for people to hunt. Sure, the state’s there in the background in case things go wrong (which is a helpful thing if it’s needed), but North Dakota has wisely taken a largely hands-off approach and allowed neighbors and friends to work things out. We might want to consider that model across many other contexts . . .
The other thing you notice on opening weekend are the hunters in blaze orange all over the landscape, all looking for “roosters” (male pheasants; the females are safe) to hunt. From the outside, this might seem risky — competing groups of (mostly) men shooting deadly weapons on land of unclear provenance. I think the average metro area resident would expect a bloodbath. Yet, the situation is almost completely safe. The hunters carefully follow both the formal rules of the state (which are sensible) and a series of unwritten customs to ensure safety. For example, when you travel in your car from spot to spot, hunters empty their guns of all shells (that’s the state law) but also point their guns towards the roof to be doubly safe (that’s the custom). Another example is found when a family allows hunting on a farm adjacent to their house. In that situation, hunters plan their route to ensure that no shot gets even near the family dwelling. And, of course, groups of hunters stay well clear of each other as they hunt. These and many other laws and customs work together to nearly guarantee a safe hunt.
After sunset, we headed back to a very rustic lodge well outside of any cell service. Five or six groups with hunters from their teens to their seventies used a common table and cooking equipment. Food and supplies were liberally shared between the various group as we swapped stories about the day and previous hunts. There was laughter and bit of needling as the daily haul was compared. After a long day of walking more than 10 miles through tough brush while carrying a gun and ammunition, people mostly just sat back and relaxed with a cold beer. By 9:30, lights were out in every cabin as we slept the sleep of the physically tired — which is the best kind. After all, the next day’s hunt began at dawn, and we needed our rest.
In the end, due to some lifelong hunting experts and great dogs, and despite fewer birds than normal due to a dry spring, we got our limit. It was a very satisfying weekend.
Next . . . some unwelcome political questions intrude.