Published June 19, 2011, 12:00 AM

N.D. wildlife managers deal with impact of burgeoning oil industry

The impact of the latest oil “play” has changed the way fish and wildlife managers in the Oil Patch go about their day-to-day jobs. Instead of conducting prescribed burns or implementing grazing programs to enhance grasslands, they’re reviewing permits for new oil wells to gauge potential environmental impacts on state or federally administered lands.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

MOUNTRAIL COUNTY, N.D. — Like so many people in her profession, Connie Mueller chose fish and wildlife as a career because she loves the outdoors.

Biologist for the Lostwood Wetland Management District in northwest North Dakota, Mueller grew up in the Twin Cities but left after high school because city life wasn’t for her.

She preferred, she says, the solitude, the wide open spaces, of rural living.

The Lostwood wetland district, a 31,000-acre complex of potholes and prairie grasslands, and adjacent Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, seemed like the perfect place to make a career move in 2007 when Mueller and her husband, Doug Leschisin, left positions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in South Dakota for new jobs with the agency at Lostwood.

Leschisin is manager of 26,904-acre Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge.

They bought a 9-acre farmstead north of Stanley, N.D., and settled in with children Geena, now 18; Hanna, 14; and Alex, 12. Two years later, they built a new house. It’s an idyllic setting, this farmstead, with a thick grove of spruce trees and a freshly painted red barn that looks like something out of a picture postcard.

They have seven goats, 22 layer hens and “way too many roosters,” as Mueller puts it.

They also have new “neighbors,” of sorts — a booming energy industry that has tapped into the rich reserves of oil in the Bakken and Three Forks oil formations.

Everything has changed.

Now, oil wells dot the countryside in every direction and the constant rumble of truck traffic can be heard from the nearby highway and gravel roads. Flares from burning natural gas — produced during the oil-pumping process — light up the night sky.

In a matter of four years, the family has gone from living in the country to living in an industrial park. A very profitable industrial park that’s pumping billions into the state’s economy, to be sure, but not what Mueller and Leschisin signed on for when they moved to North Dakota.

New reality

The impact of the latest oil “play” — the industry’s term for an oil development — has changed the way fish and wildlife managers in the Oil Patch go about their day-to-day jobs. Instead of conducting prescribed burns or implementing grazing programs to enhance grasslands, they’re reviewing permits for new oil wells to gauge potential environmental impacts on state or federally administered lands.

North Dakota has about 5,000 oil wells with the potential for more than 16,000 wells to be added during the next decade, according to a recent report on oil and gas development from the state Game and Fish Department.

“I’m supposed to be a biologist, and some of the basic biology work is not getting done,” Mueller said. “How do I weigh things vs. ‘Is this well in a good spot?’ What’s more important?”

Directional drilling, a relatively new technology that allows companies to tap into oil veins up to two miles from the actual pad site, has helped minimize the environmental impact of the Bakken oil play. But even if there is an impact, managers don’t have much say in where a well is located unless they own mineral rights, which take priority over the rights of the surface landowners.

And in most cases, they don’t own those rights.

“We’ve had to educate ourselves,” Leschisin said. “We’re biologists.”

Firsthand look

Mueller and Leschisin recently hosted a group of conservationists and others touring the Oil Patch to see the impact it’s having on the state’s wildlife and habitat resources.

Mike McEnroe, Bismarck, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee and legislative liaison for the North Dakota Chapter of The Wildlife Society, organized the tour. The Wildlife Society includes natural resource professionals from across the state and serves as a forum for discussing ecological issues.

And few issues, McEnroe said, are more significant to North Dakota’s fishing and hunting landscape than the burgeoning energy industry. The recent tour started as an idea during last winter’s annual meeting of The Wildlife Society and grew from there, he said.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to go out west and just see what people are talking about,’” said McEnroe, whose role as legislative liaison includes testifying before lawmakers. “You can’t testify on someone else’s anecdotes.”

While he’s concerned about the impact of oil and gas development and the speed at which it’s happening, McEnroe said The Wildlife Society isn’t against the industry.

“We’re not trying to stop oil development,” he said. “It’s good for North Dakota’s economy. We need petroleum, we need jobs and we need gas.”

Kent Luttschwager, wildlife resource supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Williston, also hosted part of the tour, showing the extent of development on the Killdeer, Lewis and Clark and Hoffland Bay wildlife management areas.

They saw new roads and oil pads that threaten to displace wildlife, open reserve pits filled with the hazardous byproducts of the well-drilling process and, at Lewis and Clark, 17 oil wells along the Missouri River bottoms that now are flooded by the rampaging river.

In one case, Luttschwager said, water from a flooded oil well site was being pumped over a berm directly into the Missouri River.

All of the flooded wells were built before the recent Bakken oil play and the advent of horizontal drilling, Luttschwager said. The area was in a drought cycle, and Lake Sakakawea was 20 miles away. Now, the flooded river bottoms look like one big lake.

Luttschwager said the companies have taken steps to minimize damages by building dikes and pumping the oil and saltwater byproducts from the holding tanks, disposing it offsite, and filling the tanks with fresh water so they don’t float away.

“They’ve been doing a real good job of keeping us abreast and going in (to check the sites) a couple times a week,” Luttschwager said. “But the thing is, it’s going to cost them a substantial amount of money because they can’t pump for several months.”

Seven new wells being proposed for the flooded WMA also are a concern.

“Placing oil wells in the floodplain is not a very good idea,” Luttschwager said.

Time eater

Like Mueller and Leschisin, Luttschwager says he spends perhaps half of his time dealing with oil development, meeting with company officials about new wells on Game and Fish-administered lands, laying out reclamation requirements and working to ensure drilling doesn’t occur during nesting season and hunting season.

But where the department doesn’t own the mineral rights, Luttschwager said, all he can do is make recommendations.

“They want to try to do what’s right, but their No. 1 goal is to extract the resources,” he said. “They’re concerned, but they have a job and business to do, and we certainly understand that. We understand where they’re coming from and they understand where we’re coming from.”

It’s a “man-eater” for time, Luttschwager said. Wildlife surveys remain a priority, but Luttschwager said he’s stretched thin on habitat projects and managing summer work crews that mainly consist of college students.

“They’re good quality workers, but they need direction, and that’s the kind of stuff that’s really lacking as I go to these oil well meetings,” he said.

Wide swath

Luttschwager said every state wildlife management area, every federal waterfowl production area and every easement property west of U.S. Highway 83 stands to feel the impact of oil development if it hasn’t already.

“The constant noise and vehicle traffic is probably as detrimental to a lot of these sites as the well pad,” he said.

As a manager who has dedicated more than 20 years to doing right by wildlife and the habitat it needs to survive, Luttschwager concedes the new reality wears on him, at times.

“Everything that we’ve done either on our wildlife management areas or through our private lands programs — even working on deer permits” is affected, Luttschwager said. “We’ve got lots of hunters coming in to pheasant hunt, and you see it affected, in my opinion, very dramatically.

“It just seems to be the tip of the iceberg, and it’s hard to keep a positive attitude because it’s going to be a significant effect.”

At what price?

However significant they might be, the long-term effects remain to be seen. Species less tolerant to human disturbance, such as mule deer, sage grouse, antelope and bighorn sheep, stand to face the greatest impact, but other factors influence populations, as well.

“There are so many other variables that affect wildlife — winters, spring nesting conditions,” Luttschwager said. “We might see some dramatic decreases in some of these species, but to actually point the finger (to oil) as the exact cause is going to be difficult to quantify and qualify. It’s really the habitat fragmentation, landscape fragmentation and the cumulative effects of this kind of development.”

That’s something everyone who cares about North Dakota has to think about, Luttschwager said.

“Certainly, it’s greatly boosted the economy; certainly, it’s boosted the financial position of a lot of mineral owners,” he said. “But long term, I think North Dakota is losing part of its heritage of the quiet, wide open landscape, and we’re turning it into an industrial park.”

Mueller, the biologist at Lostwood, echoes that sentiment. She sees and hears it every time she steps outside the house and said she’s “past frustrated.”

But as a biologist and wildlife manager, Mueller said she and others like her have to believe they’re making a difference in helping to minimize the impact of an industry that appears to be here for the long term.

“The freight train is coming through,” she said. “We’re only trying to keep it on the tracks.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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