GRAND FORKS — As avid North Dakota pheasant hunters in the 1960s and ’70s, Eric Rogne and Jim Reynolds often found themselves casting envious eyes across the border to neighboring South Dakota.
Times were tough for North Dakota pheasant hunters in those days, especially in the southeast part of the state where Rogne and Reynolds hunted.
Meanwhile, just across the border in South Dakota, pheasant hunters enjoyed a regular rooster bonanza.
“It was extremely hard,” Rogne, of West Fargo, recalls. “I hunted with a group of people, and a lot of times, I’d go out with my own dog, and I’d hit Richland, Ransom and Sargent counties hard. You’d see some birds, but it was just tough going — I mean, it really was.”
The reason, in a word, was habitat.
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According to Reynolds, who now lives near Devils Lake, changes in farming practices after the Soil Bank program ended in the mid-1960s combined with the historic blizzard of 1966 to decimate pheasant numbers in southeast North Dakota.
“Not only did they have a terrible winter, they didn’t have the habitat anymore,” Reynolds said. “We basically lost our pheasant reserves in (the southeast) part of the state.”
The tough pheasant hunting continued throughout the ’70s. Rogne was a banker in those days, while Reynolds was living in Fargo and working in law enforcement. They didn’t hunt together or even know each other, but the two men were familiar with South Dakota’s pheasant stamp program and the money it had raised for pheasant habitat, predator control and stocking birds since its inception in the 1970s.
Through mutual acquaintances, the two men met and learned about their shared mission to establish a similar program for pheasants and wildlife habitat in North Dakota.
That long-ago effort led the North Dakota Legislature in 1981 to pass HB 1520, a bill that established the state’s first General Game and Habitat Stamp.
Known today as the General Game and Habitat License, the license this year marks its 40th anniversary and is a pillar of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s Private Lands Initiative.
The stamp, which cost $3 back in 1982, costs $20 today, with proceeds earmarked for habitat projects on private lands. All small and big game hunters are required to purchase one General Game and Habitat License per year to hunt legally in North Dakota.
“It’s been a huge source of funding for our private lands program,” said Kevin Kading, private lands section leader for Game and Fish in Bismarck. “It’s probably as big as the Outdoor Heritage Fund in a way, in terms of what it did. That was a major change to something for private lands conservation, too.”
Established in 2013, North Dakota’s Outdoor Heritage Fund receives up to $40 million per biennium from oil and gas production tax revenue for qualifying conservation, recreation and habitat projects.
The General Game and Habitat License has helped raise more than $151 million for private lands conservation in North Dakota in the past four decades, Game and Fish Department statistics show. That number includes other programs that were in place before the General Game and Habitat Stamp took effect and others were established later.
At the same time, while private land enrolled in Game and Fish Department programs comes and goes, an accumulated tally of 8.5 million acres of private land has been leased for wildlife habitat at various times in the past 40 years through funding from the General Game and Habitat License and other revenue sources, according to statistics from the Game and Fish Department.
In many ways, the General Game and Habitat Stamp set the stage for the department’s Private Land Open to Sportsmen program, said Terry Steinwand, director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Better known as PLOTS, the program created by legislation in 1997 provides cost-share conservation funding for landowners who open their land to walk-in hunting access.
The PLOTS program today has about 800,000 acres of private land open to walk-in hunting access.
“You’d have to say that was the beginning of the PLOTS program,” Steinwand said. “That habitat stamp started everything because there were some very visionary people looking at, ‘Hey, what is it that’s needed out there?’ Well, they recognized it was habitat, and that was the start of it.”
During a recent phone interview, Rogne said the grassroots effort to establish a habitat stamp started in the fall of 1980, when he contacted the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department for information about their pheasant stamp program.
“They were very willing to share this program with us,” he said. “We received the South Dakota law and started drafting the same law for North Dakota.”
Teaming up with Reynolds to promote legislation to establish a stamp played a key role in its ultimate passing, Rogne recalls.
“We were really compatible with each other,” Rogne said. “Jim had a lot of talent in talking to groups, and he was good at that. I did the one-on-one and legislative talking and lobbying and contacting people that I knew and then getting a couple of contacts inside the Game and Fish Department.”
Rep. Dan Olson, a Fargo legislator at the time, was among the sponsors of the legislation.
Initially, the bill called for a pheasant stamp, with funding earmarked exclusively for pheasant habitat on private land, but lawmakers amended the legislation to a habitat stamp that would benefit all species.
That helped gain broader support for the bill, Reynolds recalls.
“We figured that by going that way, it was pretty much a no-brainer as far as support because it was apolitical,” Reynolds said. “A habitat stamp benefits all species and even includes the birdwatchers that aren’t even interested in hunting; they just like watching birds.”
The initial bill called for the stamp to cost $5, a price tag that was amended to $3 in the final legislation.
“Through all this work, we were accepted pretty well by all of the different sportsmen’s groups around the state, and they all agreed it would benefit all species of game,” Reynolds said.
Then and now
According to a history of the Game and Fish Department’s private lands program, the $3 stamp increased the private lands budget by $500,000, to $1.15 million for the biennium.
Revenue from the stamp, initially required only for small game hunters, was used to lease 20-acre “Habitat Plots” on private lands. No more than 20 acres per section could be leased, and the leases had six-year limits.
The acreage limitation imposed on habitat stamp funds was increased to 40 acres per section in 1987, and the habitat stamp became required for all small game and big game hunters.
The General Game and Habitat Stamp from 1982 through 2001 featured limited edition artwork by renowned wildlife artists such as Les Kouba and Richard Plasschaert. The artwork and physical stamp were discontinued in 2002, when the stamp became known as the General Game and Habitat License.
The original editions of the wildlife stamp prints hang in the Game and Fish Department’s Bismarck headquarters.
In 1991, the Game and Fish Department’s three private lands programs, which included the General Game and Habitat Stamp and two predecessors — the Private Land Habitat Improvement Program and the Deer Depredation Fund — were consolidated into a single program with various funding sources known today as the Private Lands Initiative.
Today, the Game and Fish Department’s Private Lands Initiative has a budget of $19.1 million for the biennium and employs 12 full-time staff.
“The habitat stamp was the beginning of the department’s Private Lands Initiative as we know it today — and it still plays a big role,” Kading, of the Game and Fish Department, said.
For their efforts on behalf of the General Game and Habitat Stamp, Reynolds and Rogne were honored as Sportsmen of the Year in 1981 by the North Dakota Wildlife Federation. In many ways, their work to establish the General Game and Habitat License is a grassroots story about two sportsmen who loved the outdoors and wanted to make it better for generations to come.
“It’s incredible, really, what happened,” Rogne said. “How many guys start up with a dream and actually get it into law on the first try? It got beat on and compromised, and we didn’t get everything we wanted, but in the end, we got quite a program here.”