WEST FARGO — Roger Parrow shook his head as he looked at the month-old Cass County Road 31 sign that had five bullet holes shot through it this summer.
The sign was found on the ground — two shots struck the bolts that connected it to the pole. It now sits in the County Highway Department Complex in West Fargo on a pile of other bullet-riddled signs.
The county already replaced roughly $15,000 worth of signs this year, said Parrow, the county’s sign foreman.
“It’s just a waste of taxpayer money,” he said. “If they want targets, I’ll put out targets at my own expense.”
Vandals shooting signs is not a new phenomenon in North Dakota, nor is it unique to Cass County. Some counties replace 50% of their signs each year, said Dale Heglund, director of the North Dakota Local Technical Assistance Program.
It’s why NDLTAP staff, along with North Dakota State University, started Sign Warrior, a three-year-old initiative aimed at educating residents about the dangers of shooting at signs and discouraging the behavior.
It may seem fun to “pop a couple rounds in a sign,” but the destruction of signage can prevent drivers from noticing visual cues and put them in danger, Heglund said.
“Sign damage is life-threatening,” he said. “It is a factor of all of us getting home safe every day.”
Sign Warriors began in 2016 after some county leaders showed Heglund’s staff signs that were ruined by bullet holes.
Efforts included putting shot-up signs in county offices for residents to see where their tax money was going, using a drawing contest for fourth graders to illustrate the dangers of shooting a road sign, helping law enforcement ramp up education in schools and spreading the message through Vision Zero, a North Dakota campaign seeking to eliminate traffic deaths.
The most recent push is a partnership with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Game and Fish has always taught hunter safety students not to shoot at signs, but the class now fosters a dialogue on the dangers of shooting at signage because of Sign Warriors, said John Mazur, a hunter education supervisor.
Instructors bring in bullet-riddled signs to start the conversation, asking who committed the crime, Mazur said. The response often is a hunter, but instructors tell students it was a vandal, he said — they aren’t hunting at that point.
Game and Fish also has signs that are vandalized, Mazur said. People who shoot the signs likely pay taxes or buy hunting licenses. The money that could go into conservation instead goes into fixing the placards, he said.
People also shoot at signs that are elevated, meaning they don’t know what is beyond the sign or in the bullet’s path, Mazur said. The bullet also can ricochet and put the shooter or others in danger, he said.
“You don’t know what that bullet is going to do when it hits that hard surface,” he said.
Shooting signs reduces their reflective element, which is needed for drivers to see them at night or in inclement weather, Heglund said. There have been several examples of damaged signs playing a role in crashes, he said.
A typical sign can cost between $100 and $150, not counting the labor to hang them, Cass County Engineer Jason Benson said. “We’re spending probably $10,000 to $20,000 a year on fixing and replacing vandalized signs,” he said.
Vandalism varies from year to year, said Parrow, who has been with the highway department for 30 years. It may cost $5,000 to replace signs one year, and another year sign damage may cost the county $40,000, he said.
Newer signs that are bright and reflective tend to be shot more often than old signs, Parrow said. They should last 15 to 20 years, but some are damaged within weeks of being posted, he said.
“When you put up a new sign, it shines so well at night. It’s like a temptation,” he said.