As images tend to do, this one spoke volumes.
It spoke of what, not long before, was a major wildlife haven. And what the place had become.
And, it appears, what it remains today.
In the 2013 photo, a majestic bighorn sheep lay dead along a busy stretch of U.S. Highway 85 near the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota, a big rig passing by in the background.
For years the park had been home to a healthy population of bighorn sheep, elk and wild horses. But with the oil boom, after a half-dozen bighorn sheep — including three mature rams — were killed along Highway 85, the rest of the sheep were captured and moved to a safer location. It’s hard to say what’s become of the park’s elk and wild horses, but it’s safe to say they’ve been impacted.
The oil boom has had that effect on much of the area’s natural resources. And while it probably can’t be blamed directly for similar troubling incidents in the area regarding big-game animals of late, it’s likely had an impact there, too.
A headless whitetail buck found Sept. 10 was the first in a string of five poachings within five weeks that the North Dakota Game and Fish Department recorded near the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in the Williston and Watford City area.
Other victims in the poachings included a mule deer doe, a pronghorn buck, a 5×5 white-tailed buck and three mule deer does. In addition, according to North Dakota Game and Fish, on Oct. 18 — on the heels of all of the above incidents — it was reported that an individual shot and killed a pronghorn buck and two does, also near Watford City and the North Unit of the national park. The individual was tracked down and charges are pending; as of late Wednesday afternoon, Game and Fish still was seeking information on all of the other incidents.
Statewide, the number of poaching incidents reportedly has increased each of the last six years, or about as long as the oil boom has truly been booming out that way. So that shouldn’t be surprising — with the oil have come more people and, in turn, more crime, as you might guess. Last year, McKenzie and Williams counties reportedly had the highest number of wildlife violations in North Dakota. The county seat for Williams is Williston, and the county seat for McKenzie is Watford City — both right on the border of the national park, and smack-dab in the middle of oil country.
In a Forum Communications story Tuesday, Watford City district game warden Keenan Snyder said these violations and the oilfields likely go hand-in-hand. Game warden Doug Olson added that out-of-state hunters not aware of state regulations also contribute to these incidents.
But in every one of the recent incidents, all of the animals were shot and left — as in dumped. Those are violations anywhere, blatant examples of poaching.
With the population boom in and around Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you had to know that the park and natural resources in the area were going to suffer. There was no way around it.
“We get a lot of poaching in this area,” Snyder said in Tuesday’s story. “It happens a lot more than people think.”
So what now? Unlike the small bighorn sheep herd, these other populations of big-game animals just can’t be up and moved to safer digs. And even if they could, protecting them from poachers is about impossible in the region.
Game and Fish is doing everything it can, but as long as the oilfields are a factor, the state’s natural resources will continue to be in jeopardy.
There’s just no way around it.