Dakota Access pipeline protest tops year in North Dakota news

Protesters wade in a creek to demonstrate.
In this Nov. 2, 2016 file photo dozens of protesters wade in cold creek waters near Cannon Ball, N.D.,
John L. Mone | AP File

The year in news in North Dakota was dominated by the months-long protest of the Dakota Access oil pipeline that attracted thousands of demonstrators to an encampment near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. It was one of several issues that dominated the political scene, including public officials wrestling over budgets because of low crop and oil prices and a former computer software executive stunning the old guard of the Republican Party in the race for governor.

Here is a look back at some of North Dakota's top news stories of 2016:

Pipeline protest

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It has been called the largest gathering of Native American tribes in a century. Tribal members and others have joined in an ongoing, tense protest against the $3.8 billion Dakota Access oil pipeline, which the Standing Rock Sioux believes threatens sacred sites and a river that provides drinking water for millions of people. The four-state Energy Transfer Partners pipeline is largely complete except for the stretch under Lake Oahe in southern North Dakota.

More than 500 protesters from around the country have been arrested after numerous clashes with police, who have used tear gas, rubber bullets and large water hoses to keep demonstrators from approaching the construction area. Police say those methods are necessary to hold back some violent protesters who have scared area residents.

The Seven Council Fires camp began growing in August as it took in the overflow crowd from smaller protest sites nearby. It expanded to a half square mile, with living quarters that include old school buses, fancy motorhomes and domelike yurts. Hay bales are piled around some teepees to keep out the wind.

Many of the protesters decided to leave in the middle of December after the U.S. Army said it would not grant permission to complete the pipeline. Mother Nature also intervened with several snow events and temperatures that plunged into double digits below zero. Several hundred demonstrators remained as the new year approached.

Rise of the outsider

Much like President-elect Donald Trump, North Dakota governor hopeful Doug Burgum promoted his status as an outsider and criticized what he called the "good old boy" establishment.

Republicans at their spring convention threw their support behind longtime state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, considered the heir apparent for governor. But Burgum, a former Microsoft Corp. executive, bucked party tradition and ran anyway in the primary and won easily. Burgum cruised in the general election in a state that has not elected a Democratic governor in more than a quarter-century.

Burgum has vowed to reinvent state government and in December named a chief operating officer and chief executive officer to lead his team. He faces a Legislature with the same Republican regulars he chided during the campaign.

Budget woes

The drop in crude oil prices and drilling that marred the state's budget picture in 2015 was accompanied by a sluggish farm economy. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple called for a special session in July, at which time lawmakers agreed to cut spending for most state agencies to help cover a $310 million budget shortfall. The outgoing governor's proposal for the next biennium called for further cuts, including a huge hit to higher education. The proposal was $2 billion less than his plan two years ago. Burgum, who ran on a platform of cutting spending and halting property tax increases, said he would address the budget issue at the start of the legislative session.

Officer slain

Recessional at the funeral for Jason Moszer
Recessional at the funeral for Jason Moszer at the Scheels Arena in Fargo on Feb. 22, 2016.
Pool | mJoy Photography File

Hundreds of police officers from around the country and Canada formed a caravan on a 21-mile procession after the funeral for 33-year-old Fargo officer Jason Moszer, who was shot while responding to a domestic disturbance on Feb. 10. Moszer was the first Fargo officer killed in the line of duty in 130 years. Thousands of people attended the service, which ended with the sounds of dispatchers making officer status checks, the last of which went unanswered three times for "Edward 143," which was Moszer's call sign. Police Chief David Todd said that call sign will no longer be used by Fargo police.

Medical Marijuana — and more

Voters in November approved four of five initiated measures, unusual in a state that usually says "no" to messing with its constitution. That included overwhelming support of legalizing medical marijuana. It also included a measure to strengthen the rights of crime victims, though both prosecutors and defense attorneys opposed it.

The medical marijuana proposal passed even though supporters had little money to spend and there was limited publicity from both sides. Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority says North Dakota approved the law with an effort that was "largely off the radar" and showed that any state could be next to change its laws. The North Dakota House had rejected a medical pot bill in the last session and its majority leader criticized the measure before the election.

Earlier, during the spring primary, citizens also went against their lawmakers when they overturned the Legislature's move to loosen the state's nearly century-old ban on corporate farming. The issue is now playing out in federal court.

Title towns

The state's two NCAA Division I universities claimed premier national titles. North Dakota State won an unprecedented fifth straight Football Championship Subdivision crown in January when quarterback Carson Wentz came back from a wrist injury to lead the Bison over Jacksonville State. A few months later Wentz was drafted No. 2 overall by the Philadelphia Eagles and was in the starting lineup on opening day. But NDSU's quest for a sixth title ended this month with a loss to James Madison in the semifinals.

The University of North Dakota won its eighth Division I hockey title in April with a 5-1 victory over Quinnipiac. It came in the first year for head coach Brad Berry, a onetime UND defenseman, and the first year of the team's new Fighting Hawks nickname. Drake Caggiula scored two goals in the finale and was named the tournament's outstanding player.

Diversion debate

Supporters of a $2.1 billion Red River diversion channel around Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota, said they will go ahead with the project despite objections from Minnesota and its governor. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources denied a permit to build a dam that would flood farmland in the two states in times of serious flooding. The Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority said that part of the project can be addressed later and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning to begin construction in early 2017. Diversion detractors have asked a judge to intervene.

President pressured

The North Dakota Board of Higher Education declined in June to extend the contract of North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani over complaints about his communication, teamwork and decision-making skills. Bresciani rankled some board members over whether the university should focus on increasing enrollment or boosting graduation rates to meet workforce demands, raised eyebrows by flying business class on a recruiting trip to India, and was investigated for his handling of a controversial plan on media guidelines for athletics. The board gave Bresciani six months to show improvement, and voted in November to give him another year.