N.D. oil boom infringes on duck habitat
Written byDENNIS ANDERSON, Minneapolis Star Tribune/GW
North Dakota's once-plentiful duck population is now under threat from the recent proliferation of oil drilling operations in the state.
Energy industry work sites have broken up the vast natural landscapes that have been home to ducks and other wildlife for millennia, said Lloyd Jones, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager at Audubon National Wildlife Refuge near Coleharbor, N.D.
"The biggest impact from oil is fragmentation of the countryside," he said. "We've had contiguous areas of native prairies and grasslands and wetlands up here forever that have provided extremely valuable and richly diverse habitat. When you break that up, which is being done now with the expansion of drilling, you change the picture very dramatically for wildlife."
The danger weighs heavy, especially on the approximately 8 percent of the region's prairie ducks that nest in the oil patch. Wildlife officials are relying on North Dakota and South Dakota to maintain their duck populations after draining, burning and plowing of Canadian wetlands and other habitats led much of the country's waterfowl to shift to the Dakotas.
North Dakota game and fish officials last year released a study of drilling's potential impacts on a number of species, but the state Legislature has not yet responded with a mitigation plan for big game or migratory birds. A proposed constitutional amendment that would have sent millions of dollars in state oil revenue to conservation was derailed after an election fraud scandal this summer.
For more than 25 years, the Conservation Reserve Program has paid U.S. farmers to retire marginally tillable land as part of an effort to increase wildlife habitat. But government budget cuts and rising commodity prices, coupled with the emergence of genetically modified crops, have led farmers, including many in North Dakota, to pull out of conservation programs.
The state holds thousands of acres of waterfowl protection areas, but those lands are interspersed with conservation easements. While companies cannot drill on the protection areas, landowners keep mineral rights on the easements and allow energy firms to drill on those tracts. Wetlands outside the protection areas are subject to drilling because North Dakota, unlike other states, has no wetlands protection law.
"In the end I might say, 'Can we turn the pad this way, or cut a corner off it?'" said FWS refuge specialist Shea Magstadt. "A lot of these companies are willing to work with us. They want to do the best job they can. We've published best-management guidelines for them to use, but all of this is going at an incredible pace. We're understaffed. It's hard to keep up."
Increased funding, most of which will come from the sale of federal duck stamps, is expected to help counter some of drilling's impacts on wildlife.
But retired FWS wildlife biologist Mike McEnroe said those funds "will only conserve wetlands and grasslands that already exist, not replace what's being lost."