JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Critters Are Benefiting From The Oil Patch Slowdown

Let me tell you who really appreciated it when the Bakken Boom went bust — at least temporarily — in 2020.

The critters.

Whether it’s sharptails nesting, bighorn sheep lambing, mule deer fawning, elk calving or foxes denning, they all appreciate being left alone at critical times of the year.

The clanging of pipe on the drilling rigs, the screaming of jake breaks coming down the hills of U.S. Highway 85 and North Dakota Highway 22, the dust of a hundred thousand trucks on gravel roads — yes you read that right, 100,000, and that could be a low estimate — are noticeably diminished this year. And that’s a welcome relief for wildlife.

On Aug. 31 there were just 10 drilling rigs active in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field. That compares with 64 active rigs a year earlier, Aug. 31, 2019.

I’ve been told a drilling rig can drill a well in a month. Then it takes a few days, maybe a week, to frack it. I’ve also been told it takes between 800 and 1,000 tanker trucks per well to service a well in the Bakken.

Before the bust, in the years 2017-2019, we were drilling about a thousand new wells per year. Do the math. That’s somewhere between 800,000 and a million truck trips per year. On dusty gravel roads. You rock, North Dakota!

But in spite of the unbridled enthusiasm for drilling every acre in the state, which emanates daily from the governor’s office, the North Dakota Industrial Commission, and the state Oil and Gas Division, some folks at the staff level are helping to make the system work the way it should as far as protecting wildlife from the ill effects of all that activity.

About five years ago, North Dakota’s State Land Board put a policy in place of having state agencies review each tract of state-owned land before holding a mineral lease auction. Early on, it seemed to be working. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department was especially attentive to the new policy and began making recommendations to the Land Board on proposed leases of parcels in sensitive wildlife areas.

The recommendations were as simple as recommending the placement of wells on the north side of the quarter-section instead of the south side, to avoid critical habitat, or to keep development alongside the roads to avoid fragmenting sensitive habitat areas any more than had already happened. They all looked very reasonable.

The idea was, when the parcels went up for lease, the oil companies bidding to lease those lands would know if, for example, the Game and Fish Department was recommending “no surface occupancy” on half-section of the land being leased, or recommending “horizontal drilling from outside the parcel,” to protect critical wildlife habitat.

These Game and Fish folks know their job and their wildlife, and they paid serious attention to details, without being unreasonable. Still, some critical wildlife areas took a hit in the last few years.

The Game and Fish Department manages about 20 state Wildlife Management Areas in what is commonly referred to as the Oil Patch in western North Dakota. A lot of those areas are not owned by Game and Fish — they are leased from willing landowners or other government agencies. And in almost all cases, the Game and Fish Department doesn’t own the minerals under the land they manage.

So if whoever owns the land or the minerals wants to go after the oil under that land, they can do that. But almost always it is done with consultation with the wildlife experts at Game and Fish.

Generally, when a parcel is about to be let out for an oil lease, the folks at Game and Fish determine what kind of restrictions they think should be put on specific tracts of land to best protect the wildlife. In some cases, the staff is personally familiar with the land. In others, the staff generates recommendations from desktop analysis using what information they have at their disposal, including aerial imagery, the department’s important habitat maps, spacing units, existing roads/pads and land ownership patterns, among other tools.

The problem is, all that doesn’t completely stop greedy oil companies from going after their oil. And it also doesn’t stop government officials, who want to maximize the income from their land and minerals, from going for the black gold.

Here’s an example of what can happen. In 2014, the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which issues drilling permits, designated some “Special Places” that it was going to try to protect from encroaching oil development. Ten of those were either North Dakota Wildlife Management Areas or National Wildlife Refuges in the Oil Patch. The commission was successful in protecting five of them — Lake Ilo, Lostwood and Stewart Lake National Wildlife Refuges, the U.S. Forest Service’s Strom Hanson Inventoried Roadless Area and the state’s Antelope Creek Wildlife Management Area. The federal agencies dug in its heels and resisted development, and no one apparently wanted the oil under Antelope Creek.

The world’s tallest flare, beside the Killdeer Mountain Wildlife Management Area.
The world’s tallest flare, beside the Killdeer Mountain Wildlife Management Area.

But the state’s five other Wildlife Management Areas didn’t fare so well. Today there are oil wells on Hofflund, Killdeer Mountain, Ochs Point, Sullivan and Trenton Wildlife Management Areas., ll parcels that the Industrial Commission said it wanted to protect, until someone came along and was willing to pay for the oil there.

The good news is, the oil companies were generally willing to work with Game and Fish on siting the wells and the roads to them, to help the critters as much as possible.

Most of the impact to the resource is during the drilling phase, with all the noise and the truck traffic, so the impact has diminished somewhat this year. No one knows when the industry will bounce back from the impact of low worldwide oil prices and the COVID-19 panedemic-caused drop in demand for refined products of the oil industry.

“In most cases it’s not the actual well pad itself that causes the most trouble for wildlife but the roads in and out, and the truck traffic on them,” says Kent Luttschwager, the Game and Fish Department’s supervisor on the ground in the oil patch in Williston.

The other problems, Luttschwager says, are the noise, the nighttime light pollution and the smell from the flaring of natural gas. Anything depending on their olfactory senses for defense is in trouble in many areas.

The state has tried to adopt policies on how much gas can be flared by the oil companies, but the state’s Oil and Gas Division is doing a miserable job of enforcement during the industry downturn.

There are about 20 other WMA’s in the Oil Patch that were not singled out for special attention by the Industrial Commission, and a few of those either have wells on them or adjacent — close enough to cause wildlife disturbance during critical times of the year. And three of them — Schmisek Lake, Box Oxbow and Lewis and Clark Wildlife Management Areas — have been impacted by oil or brine spills, or both.

Game and Fish has also been tagged to work with the state and federal agencies to look over potential leasing problems when their minerals go up for lease. North Dakota’s Department of Trust Lands, for example, manages almost a million mineral acres, what we general refer to as “school sections,” and The Bureau of Land Management oversees leasing on a million acres of federal land, mostly owned by the U.S. Forest Service.

In a lease auction of federal minerals on Forest Service land Sept. 22, a couple of weeks ago, the BLM withdrew five parcels it had originally scheduled to be leased for oil development because of environmental or wildlife concerns, so the system is working in some cases.

The diminished activity and low price of oil may also affect lease sales in the future, at least in the short term.

So while oil executives and government money counters are frowning over the meager deposits in their cash registers this year, you might just see a few mule deer or sharptails or coyotes with big grins on their faces when you’re out in the field in western North Dakota this fall. Their world is a little quieter right now than it has been in quite a few years.

(This article first appeared in the October 2020, issue of Dakota Country magazine.)

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