Belinda Wink had what she thought was a cut-and-dried case when it came to prosecuting a young man who was trespassing on her family's hunting land.
Belinda and her husband, Glenn, and 7-year-old son, Kyle, were shed antler hunting on the nearly 300 acres they own not far from Alexandria when they noticed someone coming through the woods. He didn't see them until the Winks confronted him for being on their land.
"We called (Douglas County conservation officer) Mitch Lawler, and we spoke with him," Belinda said. "He talked to the guy, and he admitted to trespassing."
Belinda said they were fine with giving the young man a warning the first time this happened. It wasn't until the Winks caught the same hunter again that they decided to try to prosecute.
"The county attorney said he admitted to it, but we have a problem," Belinda said. "The problem was we didn't have enough no trespassing signs on our property. We only had one by the entrance where we go in."
Belinda said their signatures they had on the signs from the prior hunting season had also faded by that spring.
Lawful way of posting
Lawler says he often runs into similar situations when trying to prosecute trespassing cases.
The Department of Natural Resource's 2017 hunting and trapping regulations booklet devotes pages 8-11 to the trespassing law. Page eight states that those taking part in outdoor recreation may not enter legally posted land or agricultural land without permission. Agricultural land does not need to be posted by the landowner, and that includes those enrolled in a program such as CRP - the Conservation Reserve Program.
The rule book also lays out how a landowner must legally post their land. Landowners, lessees or authorized managers must place signs at intervals of 1,000 feet, or 500 feet on wooded areas. Or signs may be placed at primary corners and at access points of the land.
Mike Shelden, the District 32 supervisor with the DNR, said that option to place signs at the corners of a property and at the access points was done to help lessen the burden on owners of large parcels of land.
"It would be overwhelming to make sure all those signs are up (every 500 feet), and very expensive," Shelden said. "I've worked for 32 years as a game warden, and it wasn't until a few years ago that they added that in there allowing it to be posted at the corners. The small family farm is a thing of the past. We're now dealing with landowners who farm 2,000-3,000 acres."
Signs must state "No Trespassing," or similar words, in 2-inch high letters and have the signature or the name and telephone number of the landowner, lessee, or manager. Having a name and number on the signs is required because the state wants to make sure a person has an easy way to contact the landowner in order to ask permission to gain access, Lawler said.
All these guidelines must be followed in order for the DNR to prosecute a case.
"The landowner is the victim in a trespass complaint," Lawler said. "So there's a responsibility of a landowner to lawfully post it, but I think there's a bigger onus on sportsmen to obey properly posted land."
Tough to prosecute
Landowners are also required to visit their no trespassing signs at least once a year to make sure the writing on them is still visible.
Lawler and Shelden both recommended taking a cell phone photo or video that has a date stamp on it once the signs are posted and signed. That can be used to prove a case even if the writing fades or someone tears down the signs.
The burden of proof on the landowner can be difficult without catching a trespasser in the act. Some are uneasy about approaching a stranger when weapons are usually involved.
Those who knowingly trespass often go out of their way to hide their faces in case they are captured on camera.
'They give up'
Parts of the trespass law itself and dealing with those who enter land without permission adds up to a headache for some landowners.
The Winks put in a lot of time and money to manage their property the best they can. They plant food plots and set game cameras as a way to not only monitor what kind of deer they have, but to help create enthusiasm for the outdoors in their 7-year-old son. During firearms season, they bring their nephews in to hunt the land.
"The hard work you put into it to make it fun for the family to enjoy, all it takes is one person to ruin that," Belinda said.
Lawler said he wouldn't call trespassing a huge problem in the area but said it definitely happens, especially on private land that borders public grounds. Belinda, who is an active member of the Viking Sportsmen group in Alexandria, says she hears from others about trespassing problems frequently, but most of the cases are not reported to the DNR.
"They give up," Belinda said. "They don't call because it's such a constant hassle."
Lawler hears that and says the trespassing law could be simplified. Any changes to the law would have to go through the state Legislature.