Aging of the Guard: Color Guards in southwest ND consist of mostly retired veterans

BELFIELD — Larry Johnson points to a grouping of six 4-by-6-inch photographs taped to a wall of a room in the Belfield American Legion Hall.

The photos show the Belfield Legion Color Guard in formation at different funerals.

After a moment, Johnson looks at fellow Legion and Color Guard member Larry Ewoniuk and says, “a lot of those guys are gone now.”

It’s the same story everywhere in southwest North Dakota, where aging veterans organizations mean fewer young members — especially those willing and able to be involved in activities such as Color Guard for funerals and holiday services.

Eleven members of the Belfield Color Guard showed up for Monday’s Memorial Day services. “A perfect number,” Johnson said. There was a common theme amongst the group though.

Almost all are retired. The two youngest members there Monday were 50 and 33 years old.

“Are any of these people coming after us, are they going to be there for us?” Johnson asked. “We don’t know.”

Color Guards in southwest North Dakota are typically run by the American Legion. The group’s duties are to advance and retire the colors, perform Taps, and often present American flags to family members at funerals.

All Legion Color Guards consist of veterans who served in a branch of the military during a time of war. But, as Vietnam War-era veterans age, there are concerns that a looming struggle to get members will become an enduring challenge.

Art Wanner, who organizes the Dickinson (N.D.) Legion Color Guard, said he’s fortunate enough to have a “good core group” that turns out 10 to 14 members for Memorial Day, Veterans Day and funeral services.

“The fellas who start doing it, they don’t want to give it up,” Wanner said. “They’re dedicated and the folks we do it for, they appreciate it and that’s what it’s all about. But it’s hard. It’s hard to find the people.”

Recruiting the next group of veterans may require some waiting.

Wanner and other Color Guard leaders in southwest North Dakota said they try to get non-participating veterans involved in the services with little success.

Two of the biggest challenges is convincing potential Color Guard members that they don’t have to be at every funeral or holiday service, and getting their employers to allow them more freedom to take off work for those services.

“The biggest thing that would help us is if the employers pushed it,” Wanner said. “They have those individuals working for them. If they allowed them a little bit of flexibility to give them some time off to perform that service as a patriotic thing to do, that would be the key. A lot of those employers are hesitant to give them that time off.”

Jessica Clifton, the veterans service officer for Stark, Billings, Dunn and Hettinger counties, said it’s a struggle for younger veterans to become involved in organizations such as the Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars because of the demand placed on them at home.

“They’re just too busy working and raising families,” she said. “They don’t have the time to join veterans organizations and Color Guard.”

Clifton, who is retired Air Force and has young children at home, said she would enjoy doing more with veterans organizations, but sees that as a part of her future.

Billy Hanson, the 84-year-old Legion commander in New England, said he speaks to younger veterans he knows, sends them letters and has even gone as far as having the club pay their yearly dues in an effort to get them more involved.

“We’ve got several of them here that were in different wars,” Hanson said of his local veterans. “They just don’t want to get involved.”

Hanson said, so far, his club has been lucky. They still get enough people together to perform Color Guard duties. Seven is the average number, he said.

“They’re all in their 60s or 70s that are all participating in the Color Guard,” Hanson said.

Kevin Carvell, Mott’s Legion commander, said about six months ago he convinced another veteran, a recent retiree, to join the club’s Color Guard. But that man came in on the heels of the group losing one member to health problems. Another, an 88-year-old World War II veteran, participated in Color Guard for the final time Monday.

“We’re maintaining,” Carvell said.

Wanner said while the Dickinson Color Guard gets a new member every so often, there’s a nearly universal fear of what they’re committing to. He said some are hesitant to join either because of the time commitment, or a fear they’ll be unable to properly carry out the duties.

“The older folks who have been away from the military for a while, they’re scared to try it,” Wanner said. “They don’t know if they can do it.”

Increasing age hasn’t stopped the Belfield Color Guard.

Minutes before the town’s Memorial Day services — and with a thunderstorm looming to the west — Johnson led seven riflemen, two flaggers and a bugler on a three-block march from the Legion Hall to the Belfield Theatre.

Along the way, the few people on the streets — including three young boys — stopped, removed their hats and paid respect to both the men and the American flag they were marching behind.

“I’m proud of my guys,” Johnson said.

Quality-of-life factors determine if people choose to live in Dickinson

James Kramer told a group of Dickinson city leaders Tuesday that “individual factors” such as recreation, tourism, arts and culture are becoming the main influences in where people choose to live their lives.

The city’s Parks and Recreation director said he sees it almost daily when business leaders and Dickinson State University recruiters bring potential employees and students, respectively, to the West River Community Center in an effort to convince them to work, learn and live in Dickinson.

“In olden days, people moved to a place where there are job opportunities,” he said. “Nowadays, people may have two or three different employment opportunities, and they’re going to go look at those and base their decision on different individual factors. Does that community have what I’m looking for to live?”

Kramer’s comments kicked off the Quality of Life luncheon hosted by the Dickinson Area Chamber of Commerce at Lady J’s.

The luncheon featured short presentations on areas the influence Dickinson’s well-being by Terri Thiel, executive director of the Dickinson Convention and Visitor’s Bureau; Jim Kelly, interim CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, and Ty Orton, executive director of the DSU Heritage Foundation.

Kramer said the parks department is turning its focus to improving long-neglected areas of its portfolio, such as the city’s trail system as well as possible improvements around the Patterson Lake Recreation Area.

He said trails are “an area where we’re lacking.”

“We definitely need to take a look at our trail system and expand it,” Kramer said. “We have begun working with the city to create a master plan and create some new opportunities in that area. We look forward to doing that in the future.”

He said opportunities exist for expansion of recreational opportunities near Patterson Lake, and pointed to the two-mile Crooked Crane Trail project that will be completed this summer as an example of that.

Like Kramer, Kelly also gave a taste of quality-of-life improvements that could be in Dickinson’s future.

Kelly spoke about the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library project on DSU’s campus and showed renderings of what the library would look like when completed. The project is likely to begin construction on the DSU rodeo grounds near the corner of State Avenue and Fairway Street this summer.

The first project, a replica of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch cabin made out of cottonwood trees found in the Badlands, could begin construction this summer after the final Roughrider Days Rodeo held in June.

The library — which renderings showed would be a large, sweeping structure complete with an all-glass great hall — would be years in the making and Kelly said would require “significant site preparation” as plans require vast landscaping improvements to the 26-acre site.

“As you go by the site now, it’s sort of flat as a pancake and as flat as the top or your table,” he said. “That’ll change significantly as we get into the building of the facility.”

If the library comes to fruition as planned, Thiel said Dickinson has more than enough hotels to give visitors a place to stay. She said the city has 1,773 rooms available at 21 lodging properties — a 135 percent increase from 2004.

However, the city’s hotel occupancy rate dropped 32.5 percent from 2014 to 2015 because of the decrease in the area’s oil activity. With that in mind, Thiel said the CVB’s advertising push in print, online and social media has been to promote Dickinson’s hotel availability.

“We really try to educate people in the state about that,” she said.

Orton, who closed the speeches by talking about the progress the new Heritage Foundation is making, said part of maintaining Dickinson’s quality of life is for the university to find and retain students who want to stay in the city after they graduate.

“We have students there right now that have stayed through some very hard times,” Orton said. “They stayed because of their true love of DSU and this city. They chose to stay in Dickinson because of their love for the community, because of the quality of life. Those are the people we need to make sure they can stay around, they can continue to build this community 20, 30, 40 years from now.”

Gift to sportsmen: Longtime teacher donates 1,120 acres of family land to Game and Fish to establish Wildlife Management Area


LEFOR — Tucked away a few miles west of the Enchanted Highway south of Gladstone is a large and secluded tract of land where pheasants pop out of thick grassland and deer hide in tree rows that stretch for nearly a half-mile.

It’s an area soon to become Stark County’s first North Dakota Game & Fish Department Wildlife Management Area.

The 1,120 acres of land–which consists of an adjoining section, half-section and quarter-section–was gifted to the Game and Fish Department by Regina Roth, a longtime teacher and lover of wildlife who died in January.

“I wish I would have known her because I don’t know why she did it,” said Casey Anderson, the Game & Fish Department’s assistant wildlife division chief.

Anderson said one of Roth’s wishes is certain, however. It’s that she wanted to ensure the WMA was named after her parents, Adam and Theresa Raab, who homesteaded the area. Anderson said Game & Fish will be honoring that wish.

Game & Fish has yet to complete the land acquisition process and Anderson said it may take a couple years before the WMA is complete.

The department must fence the entire area, place proper signage and rework agreements with a local farmer who leases the roughly 450 acres of cropland within the future WMA.

“We’ll get boundary fences and stuff up as soon as we can. That’s kind of the first order of business,” Anderson said. “When we were talking about doing habitat work and stuff like that, the fact that there’s an ag lease that we’re going to uphold is OK. Because there’s some things that have to be done on it before we start worrying about habitat work.”

Anderson said the boundary fencing will be up by this fall’s pheasant hunting season.

“There’s going to be all kinds of opportunities down there, as far as hunting opportunities,” he said.

The original Raab farmstead–an idyllic western North Dakota farm setting–is also part of the land donation. It’s surrounded on the north, south and east sides by hundreds of Ponderosa pine trees and Evergreens, and there are some other outbuildings.

“She had some wishes that we try to maintain that farmstead,” Anderson said, adding that Game & Fish is still checking into what it’s legally allowed to do with the farm and house on it. “We’re not necessarily in the business of having living quarters, but we’d sure like to maintain her wishes.”

Norma Hirning, whose husband Roger farms the land inside what will become the WMA, said the entire Raab family–including Regina and her brother Irving–were animal lovers who cared deeply for their land.

“The entire time I’ve known those people, they’ve had a real love for animals. Whether it’s wildlife or cattle, whatever,” Hirning said.

Though Hirning said Roth was a very private person, she touched countless lives as a teacher.

After graduating from Lefor High School, Roth began teaching at a country school nearby before even obtaining her degree from what was then Dickinson State Teacher’s College. She ended up teaching first and second grades in Mott, where she also became the elementary principal, until her retirement.

There are 215 Wildlife Management Areas throughout North Dakota either managed or partially managed by Game & Fish. The WMAs are open to hunting, fishing and trapping, and are also used for hiking, primitive camping and nature study, according to the department’s website.

Of those WMAs, only around 30 are larger than the Raab Wildlife Management Area, and many of those in western North Dakota are near Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe.

“This is a huge gift to the sportsmen and women of North Dakota,” Anderson said. “It’s going to open a lot of opportunities for locals that need a place to hunt.”

When Anderson presented information about the WMA to the Stark County Commission last Tuesday, Commissioner Ken Zander figured the land could have brought more than $1 million on the open market.

“When you look around, there’s not too many of us–myself included–who would have thought of doing something like this before we or I would have cashed in, and taken the money and run,” he said. “It’s a beautiful gesture.”

Game and Fish brings back bighorn sheep season

BISMARCK — The western North Dakota Badlands will likely have a bighorn sheep hunting season again this fall, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department announced Monday.

A bacterial pneumonia virus affected the state’s bighorn herd so badly in 2014 that Game and Fish closed the 2015 season.

But the animals have recovered well enough that Game and Fish Wildlife Division Chief Jeb Williams said a season will happen this fall, barring unforeseen pneumonia issues this spring and summer.

“What we found is we still have some harvestable adult sheep out there that we’d just as soon see the public utilize,” Williams said.

Historically, two to eight licenses for male bighorn sheep are drawn yearly in North Dakota, Williams said.

The 2016 season status will be determined Sept. 1 after the completion of summer population surveys, he said.

“There’s still potential for animals to die of pneumonia,” Williams said. “That’s why we have the provision in there that we’ll do our summer surveys first.”

Bighorn sheep hunting can only take place in select Badlands hunting units. The units include all of Slope and Golden Valley counties, and parts of Billings, McKenzie and Dunn counties. This year, no hunting will be allowed south of either the Theodore Roosevelt National Park North or South Units.

“It’s such a tremendous resource that we have, and it’s only found in the Badlands,” said Bruce Stillings, big game management supervisor in Dickinson’s Game and Fish office. “It’s quite a unique opportunity for our hunters to be able to hunt. The reopening is excellent news for us as a department and to the hunters alike.”

Brett Wiedmann, a big game biologist in Dickinson, said as many as 11,000 people typically send in the $5 nonrefundable application to draw one of the few bighorn sheep hunting licenses the state allots. He said that’s more applicants than Wyoming and Idaho typically receive, even though they have larger bighorn sheep populations.

“It’s one of the toughest draws of any license in North America each year we have a season,” he said. “It’s truly the hunt of a lifetime.”

The North Dakota bighorn sheep bow-hunting season is scheduled to run from Oct. 21 to Dec. 31, with a regular gun season from Oct. 28 to Dec. 31.


Watching the herd

Wiedmann is in the process of completing the 2015 bighorn sheep lambing survey and will conduct the comprehensive survey this summer.

He said lamb numbers through the herd look good, and said Game and Fish is paying close attention to the herd’s susceptibility to the pneumonia pathogens.

“It could flare up at any time,” Wiedmann said. “If we have a recurrence of pneumonia, we could lose a significant number of animals.”

However, he said the department wouldn’t have started the process of reopening the bighorn sheep hunting season if it was concerned another population disruption would happen soon. He said the pneumonia cases have slowed since late 2014.

Williams said the pneumonia issue in bighorn sheep is complex and controversial, and called it the “No. 1 concern among sheep biologists.”

He said national research has shown bighorn sheep that have contact with domestic sheep are at risk of getting the virus.

“There’s a lot of research associated with that issue,” Williams said. “At this point in time. We don’t have a definitive answer of how that happens.”


Additional elk licenses

Thirty-five additional elk hunting licenses have been added for the two western North Dakota hunting units that encompass much of the same area as the bighorn sheep hunting unit.

Game and Fish added 37 elk licenses, making 338 available in the state. The E3 unit, which is Billings, Golden Valley and Slope counties–not including Theodore Roosevelt National Park–added 10 any-elk licenses and 15 antlerless elk licenses. The E2 unit, which is Dunn and McKenzie counties, added 10 any-elk licenses.

Williams said the state has closed Sioux County to elk hunting.

He said a herd is growing in that area, so Game and Fish is working with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and private landowners to allow them to increase in numbers. He said an attempt could be made at reopening elk hunting in Sioux County next year.


Moose licenses added

An increasing moose population allowed Game and Fish to allow 70 more hunting licenses for the animal. The majority of the new licenses can be found in the north central units, where there has been an increase in antlerless moose.

“Moose have been doing very well in the prairie areas of North Dakota,” Williams said. “Their numbers have really been expanding … we’d just as soon have the public utilize that opportunity rather than trucks and vehicles hitting them.”

There will be 202 moose licenses drawn in the state.

The moose bow hunting season runs from Sept. 2-25, the regular season in Units M8, M9 and M10 run from Oct. 7-10 and the regular gun season for Units M5 and M6 is from Nov. 18 to Dec. 11.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park gears up for a busy year

MEDORA — Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s top official believes it could be a big year for the western North Dakota people’s playground.

Planning is already underway for the National Park Service’s yearlong centennial celebration, and Park Superintendent Wendy Ross said TRNP is anticipating a sizable boost in visitors thanks to both centennial events and North Dakota Tourism’s nationwide marketing push that highlights the park.

“The centennial is just big,” Ross said.

The publicity push, featuring actor and Minot native Josh Duhamel, includes TV commercials filmed in the park’s South Unit near Medora last summer that are now beginning to air nationally.

“I’m very optimistic,” Ross said. “I think our summer is going to be amazing.”

Boosting visitors

Ross became acting superintendent in November 2014 following Valerie Naylor’s retirement. The “acting” label was dropped last July and she moved into the role permanently.

Her goal is to capture a larger audience and get visitors to the park who may have never been there, or even heard of it, before.

TRNP’s 2015 attendance figures show it had more than 586,000 counted visitors — an increase of about 26,000 people from 2014. However, Ross said those numbers may not be entirely accurate after park officials discovered some of its people counters hadn’t been working for weeks at a time. That glitch has been fixed, she said.

“I’m really concerned about capturing what we get in terms of visitation this year,” Ross said.

Interestingly, Ross said the park is noticing a small demographic shift in who frequents the area.

“We’re just seeing more foreign visitors,” she said. “… We see people who don’t traditionally go to national parks. They’re curious about what it’s all about.”

Ross said she’s looking for opportunities for the park to become relevant to what she calls a “curious generation” beginning to travel more

“The generation that didn’t travel to national parks as children,” she said. “That’s really our opportunity now with all this promotion.”

Being ranked as the No. 5 place in the world to see in 2016 by The New York Times may play into that too, she said.

Ross said park officials worked with the Times’ staff for the piece, so they knew it was coming. But they didn’t realize the park would rank so high on the list, or be mentioned alongside some more exotic locations.

“It’s been great positive press,” she said. “You couldn’t ask for anything better than to be on that list.”

Oil and tourism

Ross said summer tourism now hops back into the front seat of North Dakota’s economy after low oil prices hurt the state’s energy industry. However, the byproduct of low oil prices is lower gas prices low, which benefits the park with both in-state and out-of-state visitors.

“When that starts decreasing, in terms of price, tourism comes up and we see that everywhere, in all national parks,” Ross said.

She said the park’s North Unit, about 15 miles south of still-booming Oil Patch hub Watford City — where the population has increased from 1,600 to around 7,000 in the past five years — has become the park’s “new front door.”

“There are all these countries represented in Watford City that were never there before,” Ross said. “It’s our chance to be relevant to a new generation and a new group of people, to think about that.”

There are challenges up north, however.

The park is working to replace its North Unit Visitors Center, which is currently a collection of portable buildings. But a replacement may be a couple years away from reality, Ross said, because of budgetary concerns. Still, she’s trying to make the North Unit more of a priority.

“It used to be a sleepy backwater, real wilderness experience,” Ross said.

TRMF’s involved in NPS centennial

The Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation plans to play a role in the National Park Service Centennial as well, said Justin Fisk, the foundation’s marketing director.

The foundation is sending Roosevelt impersonator Joe Wiegand away from Medora for the entire month of June to travel the country doing presentations and performances to raise awareness about the park.

The Medora Musical will also “very, very likely” have the centennial central to its daily performance, Fisk said.

“They’re writing the show right now and it’s looking cool, and they’re looking for the best way to include the National Park Service Centennial in that,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting.”

Fisk said over the next month, more centennial tie-ins and plans will be finalized between the park service and the foundation.

“With the partnership, you can actually get a lot more done,” Ross said. “You can use community members and partners to fill in some of the nuts-and-bolts gaps, but you can also create those meaningful ties your communities.”