Points North: North Dakota may be the next Paradise Lost

North Dakota (Matthew Bietz/Flickr)
North Dakota (Matthew Bietz/Flickr)

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About a decade ago, North Dakota hunters, upset with increasing numbers of out-of-state duck hunters, urged the state legislature to pass new restrictions on nonresidents. Many believed they were seeing too many vehicles with Minnesota or Wisconsin license plates at their favorite hunting spots. Out on the wide-open prairie, even a few hunters can seem like a crowd.
 
While the ire of resident hunters was directed at out-of-staters, North Dakota’s demographics were changing, too.  Growth of Fargo and, to a lesser extent, Bismarck, meant that a once-predominantly rural state was now mostly populated with city-dwellers, many of whom were not born and raised in North Dakota. Unbeknownst at the time, even bigger demographic changes loomed on the prairie horizon.
 
In 2009, we drove across North Dakota on U.S. Hwy 2 en route to the Rockies. We camped for the night in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Williston, just a few miles from the Montana border, because nothing else was available. The community was in the midst of an oil boom and newly arrived workers filled the campgrounds and other places to stay. Two years later, we passed through Williston again and were amazed at how much the community had changed. Temporary man camps and oil company operations sprawled across former wheat fields. Heavy truck traffic hummed along the highway. Williston’s atmosphere could be summed up in one word: grimy.
 
The oil boom has brought new prosperity to the northern prairie, but at a great cost to North Dakota’s landscape and way of life. Dakota Country magazine, to which I subscribe, does an excellent job of chronicling the damage to the land, water and wildlife occurring in the Oil Patch. Letters to the magazine describe the angst many longtime North Dakotans feel as they watch the western third of their state experience irrevocable change.
 
Perhaps it’s better late than never, but North Dakotans appear to be waking up to how much their state will continue changing as it becomes Ground Zero for domestic energy development. Among the big losers are hunters, because energy development is gobbling up land and displacing wildlife. Even larger than the Oil Patch is the Corn Patch, a monoculture spreading like cancer as cropland and grassland is converted to corn to meet the demands of the ethanol industry. In many cases, the conversion of prairie to row crops is permanent, because the land is being underlaid with drain tile to rush the water into ditches. Lost down the drain are the sloughs and prairie potholes--Mother Nature’s infrastructure for North America’s duck factory.
 
A story in the current issue of Dakota Country reports North Dakota has lost about one-half of the land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to retire erodible land from crop production. At its peak in 2007, North Dakota had 3.4 million acres of CRP grassland, which has since dwindled to 1.6 million acres and continues to decline.  Another name for CRP, by the way, is wildlife habitat.
 
Out in the Oil Patch, perhaps the biggest change is in people—as in lots more people.  Another Dakota Country story reports there are presently 7,000 oil wells in North Dakota with some experts predicting the number of wells may eventually reach 40,000. A much larger workforce will be needed to keep those wells pumping.  North Dakotans already know what more workers means. Dakota Country editor Bill Mitzel writes: “Cities in western North Dakota like Dickinson, formerly a nice, quiet, clean community of 7,000 good folks, will see population increases approaching 50,000 in the near future…"

In Minot recently, I was told there are presently nine large motels under construction in the city, along with 4,000 homes. Tiny Burlington to the west is expanding at an amazing rate, while Surrey, 10 miles to the east with 800 residents, is currently building 1,200 homes…Other cities, including Watford City, Williston, Stanley, Killdeer and Belfield, are already under siege from choking dust created by unstoppable trucks, unimaginable garbage along the roadside, strangers whose motives are unknown and a general downfall in their overall, previously healthy way of life. Most people don’t like it. Not all, but most. Thousands of ‘lifers’ in western North Dakota have already left their homes. More would like to, but various reasons,
cannot.”
 
It’s a sad state of affairs when our demand for energy so alters a place that the people who lived there previously must move away. It’s sadder still when better planning and regulations, as well as a greater respect for the natural environment, could have mitigated some of the most damaging effects of change. In this respect, North Dakotans are reaping what they’ve sowed. For years, the state  has taken a “we don’t need no stinkin’ rules” approach to environmental protection. Now, from the tiled and drained eastern Corn Patch to the grimy western Oil Patch, North Dakota is paying the price for its anti-regulatory arrogance--and ignorance.
 
For hunters, North Dakota seems well on its way to becoming yet another paradise lost. Already hunters worry populations of mule deer, bighorn sheep and other game are dwindling due to oil development. Bird hunters are resigned to finding fewer ducks and pheasants than they did during the “good old days,” just a couple of years ago.  The population explosion and landscape alterations occurring in the name of energy development will prove major obstacles to future conservation efforts. And to think that just 10 years ago, North Dakota hunters’  biggest concern had was that there were too many duck hunters from Minnesota.
Those were the days.

Airdate: September 14, 2012

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