A Little Good News For The Bad Lands

Here’s an updated version of an article that I wrote for this month’s issue of Dakota Country magazine:

There’s a new set of eyes behind the desk of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s Wildlife Division Chief, and that spells good news for the Bad Lands.

Jeb Williams, now four months into his job as the man responsible for the well-being of all of North Dakota’s wild critters, was raised in the North Dakota Bad Lands. I don’t know if he is the first Wildlife Division Chief who’s a product of a Bad Lands ranch, but I know if I had to choose a “growing-up place” for the person in that job, I’d choose the valley of the Little Missouri River.

I’m not downplaying the job performance of the man who preceded Williams, Randy Kreil, or any of Randy’s predecessors, but there is a special set of values that comes with growing up on a Bad Lands ranch. I know that because I’m married to a woman who grew up on a ranch there.

“The Department has a high interest in the Bad Lands, because the public has a high interest,” Williams said in a recent interview. “The Bad Lands provide an experience a lot of people like. It’s an important place for the people of North Dakota—and for me personally.”

Wow. Those are words that those of us who love the Bad Lands, and are scared for their future, and the future of the plants and animals that live there, want to hear from the second most important man at our state’s natural resource agency.

Williams acknowledges that the Bad Lands face a unique set of challenges because of rapid oil development in the western third of our state, and he says the Department is taking steps to address that.

“We are continually in discussions with the oil industry,” he says. “We’ve developed a set of critical habitat maps, and we’ve provided them to the oil companies. We’ve spent a lot of time on it.”

Those maps came into play recently when Continental Resources, the state’s largest oil industry presence, requested a drilling permit on land near Lake Sakakawea, on the fringe of the Bad Lands. That triggered a public comment period, because the requested land fell inside the boundaries of one of the state’s unique “areas of interest” identified by the North Dakota Industrial Commission last spring. The Game and Fish Department received a notice from the Department of Mineral Resources that they had ten days to review the drilling permit application and share their thoughts on the request. Agency professionals looked at the area and found there was an existing well in the same area, and recommended, for example, that any new drilling take place on the same pad.

It’s in a flood-prone area, and other industry watchdogs submitted comments as well, calling for a dike around the entire site to prevent problems like those that happened last March, when a flood at ice-out caused an oil storage tank to float away and spill its contents all over a State Game Management Area not far away.  The Department of Mineral Resources has the requests under consideration, and will make a recommendation to Continental soon about the location of their new well.

These are the kind of challenges that the Game and Fish Department didn’t face ten years ago, and they take staff time away from what might be other priorities if there was no massive oil boom out west.

Williams takes over as Wildlife Chief at a critical time for both the resource and the North Dakotans who spend time in the outdoors, especially those who like to hunt deer. We all know that the state’s deer herd is approaching historic lows, as are the number of licenses being issued to hunt them. Williams is going to be the point man in dealing with those issues.

The state has been hit by a “perfect storm” of circumstances affecting the deer population: a huge loss of CRP acres, three recent bad winters, and an oil boom. All have affected the deer herd. In addition, Williams, acknowledges, the state was “very aggressive” in the deer harvest for a few years in the first decade of the 21st century. Because of favorable conditions, the herd population exploded and needed to be thinned, after a public outcry from farmers, whose hay was being eaten in the winter, and from drivers with busted grills and banged-up fenders, from critters who just couldn’t seem to say off the state’s highways.

Now, the state is in a recovery mode.

“Our hunters have high expectations—we’ve been enjoying some very good years, the best we’ve ever seen—so the challenge is getting back there,” Williams says.

Agriculture has changed, and farmers have better options for their land than they did 30 years ago, when CRP first entered the picture. And the federal farm program hasn’t provided the funds for the massive land set-aside we enjoyed here for most of those 30 years.

Still, Williams says, with adequate funding, more habitat could be made.

“A lot of landowners are telling us that they couldn’t get their land back into CRP because of program changes, and they are looking at us, and asking what we can do,” he says.

Ironically, the conservation measure rejected by North Dakota voters in November would have provided enough money to restart the CRP program at the state level, creating a million acres of quality wildlife habitat. I am still pissed off at a whole bunch of people behind the failure of that measure.  Because it would have funded such an important program at such an important time, I’m heartbroken over its failure, and it’s going to take me a very long time to get over my anger at the ineptitude of the measure’s sponsors and the disgusting, dishonest campaign of its opponents. Okay, there, I got that off my chest one more time. (That rant did not appear in the magazine version of this article. But it probably should have.)

Could the state afford to implement its own CRP program anyway? That’s the question that came up at a Game and Fish Advisory Board meeting I attended last month.

“If we had the money, it would still be up to the farmers,” says Williams. “We’d have to look at where we have interest.”

That’s likely not the Bad Lands, where most of the land is used for grazing. But there’s some good news showing through in this year’s surveys for the Bad Lands area of the state. Mule deer reproduction this year was the best since 1999, the Department’s biologists report.

The state’s PLOTS program, once over a million acres, now has about 750,000 acres enrolled, but with the cutback in CRP acres, the quality of the habitat on PLOTS land isn’t what it once was. During the CRP years, most of that million acres was dense nesting and roosting cover. Now a lot of it is just small woody draws, sloughs and grassy waterways surrounded by cropland.

Ironically, the conservation measure rejected by North Dakota voters in November would have provided enough money to restart the CRP program at the state level, creating a million acres of quality wildlife habitat. I am still pissed off at a whole bunch of people behind the failure of that measure.  Because it would have funded such an important program at such an important time, I’m heartbroken over its failure, and it’s going to take me a very long time to get over my anger at the ineptitude of the measure’s sponsors and the disgusting, dishonest campaign of its opponents. Okay, there, I got that off my chest one more time. (That rant did not appear in the magazine version of this article. But it probably should have.)

Out west, the biggest landowner is the U.S. Forest Service, with a million acres of public land, much of it grazing land and home to the mule deer and pronghorn antelope herds. The Department has a “good relationship” with the Forest Service, which manages the land, and the BLM, which manages the minerals.

Unlike the mule deer, though, the antelope aren’t yet emerging from the declining population crisis. This year the state issued just 250 antelope rifle tags, down from more than 6,000 just seven years ago. And sage grouse remain on the critical list. Earlier this year, Department biologists said we may have seen the “last dance of the sage grouse” in North Dakota. The whitetail herd has taken a hit too, but biologists blame that mostly on a chronic disease, EHD.

The elephant in the Game and Fish Department’s room, though, the one all state employees these days find unnerving to discuss, is the change in the Bad Lands landscape from a serene, placid home to cattle and wild critters, to the noisy, clanking arrival of industry in the form of drilling rigs, trucks, and gas flares, which have stolen the quiet of the night from all the residents of the Badlands, wild and tame alike.

Kreil hinted at that very thing in an exit interview with Brad Dokken of the Grand Forks Herald last fall, saying “the state is at a conservation crossroads.”

“I’m worried unless something significant happens in the next two years, we’ll have missed our opportunity to preserve what we value so much as a state,” Kreil said. “This is a watershed moment in the history of this state when it comes to the future of hunting and fishing and outdoor recreation. As a state, we are going to collectively make a decision in the next few years, and I hope we can make the right one.”

Williams worries about that too.

“I’m concerned about the change in the Bad Lands,” the new Wildlife Chief says. “We know change is inevitable. Figuring out our strengths and weaknesses, and adapting to that change, is going to be a challenge. We’re all faced with that challenge—how much is the impact going to be?”

“The Bad Lands mean a lot to me. It’s a unique landscape with a unique resource.”

For those of us who love those Bad Lands, I don’t think we could ask for a better set of eyes behind that Wildlife Chief’s desk.

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