Well, We Were Warned . . .

Here’s an updated version of a story I wrote here a month or so, and for Dakota Country magazine’s current issue.  

Now we know that there will be no bighorn sheep season in North Dakota this year, for the first time since 1983. Nor will there be one in the foreseeable future.

So, add bighorn sheep to the list that already includes mule deer does and sage grouse.

In addition, like last year, there will be only a limited pronghorn antelope season in just one small area of the southern Bad Lands, with antelope season closed again in the rest of the state, and there will be only a limited mule deer buck season.

Both elk and moose licenses are down significantly in recent years. Elk licenses are down almost 50 per cent since 2010, although some of that can probably be attributed to the elk reduction program in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We’ll see how that plays out over the next few years. Moose licenses are down 25 per cent since 2010.

And whitetail deer licenses are down by more than two-thirds from the peak in 2009.

But back to the bighorns. The Game and Fish Department said in early March that because of the big die-off of bighorn sheep in the past year, they have ended sheep hunting in the state—for now. When—or if—there will ever be a season again is unknown.

What the hell is going on here?

Game and Fish has lots of answers, mostly legitimate, I think, and all different for each species. For bighorns, the latest casualty, the Department says it is pneumonia. The herd has come in contact with a domestic sheep herd and caught pneumonia and is dying off in numbers so serious that the department’s wildlife chief, Jeb Williams, says “it would be irresponsible on the Department’s part to issue once-in-a-lifetime Bighorn licenses without further investigating the status of the population.”

In other words, it wouldn’t be fair to send someone afield who gets drawn for one of those once-in-a-lifetime hunts this year, because the odds are he won’t find anything to shoot. They say they’re not sure about that, but they don’t want to take a chance. Actually, they’re pretty sure, they just don’t want to say so. And I don’t blame them, just in case they are wrong, and there are a bunch of critters hiding out there they just haven’t found. But that’s unlikely. They keep pretty good track of the critters.

Rubber tire disease claimed so many a couple of years ago  that Game and Fish actually had to pick up and move the remainder of what used to be a herd of 43 out of the area along Highway 85 to get them out of danger. I haven’t heard if they’ve lost any more to vehicles since then.

And then, the biologists tell us, the sheep aren’t making babies like they need to be, to sustain a population.

It’s not like we weren’t warned. We were told to expect this in the now infamous 2011 report titled “Potential Impacts of Oil and Gas Development on Select North Dakota Natural Resources.” That report was completed in 2010 and sat on a shelf for almost a year at the direction of someone at a higher pay grade than the Game and Fish Director, until it was leaked to some bloggers and revealed to the public. When it was finally released, we learned that a select team of dedicated Game and Fish Department biologists had done in-depth studies on what was likely to happen, soon, in North Dakota. The very first paragraph of the report says “As the footprint of oil development expands and the cumulative impacts to natural resources such as water supplies and wildlife habitat increase, maintaining the sustainability of our rich natural resources will become increasingly challenging.”

No shit, Sherlock.

It turns out that even that warning was vastly understated. But the biologists knew that. Here’s how they concluded the various chapters in the study:

  • “Interest in hunting bighorn sheep in North Dakota is astounding when compared to other states. For instance, in 2010 there were 11,417 applicants for just five available lottery licenses, more than Wyoming and Idaho combined. It should be incumbent upon all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with a growing O/G industry could come with a very high cost – namely, diminished hunting opportunities through the loss of critical habitat that sustains the wildlife populations so highly valued by the state’s citizens.”
  • “Elk are a valued big game species by the residents of North Dakota. Each year, over 10,000 North Dakotans apply for a once?in?a?lifetime license to hunt elk with a gun. It should be incumbent upon all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with the O/G industry could come with a very high cost, namely, diminished hunting opportunities through the loss of critical habitat that sustains the wildlife populations which are so highly valued by the state’s citizens. A disproportionate amount of oil development occurs on public land and increased development will further degrade habitat quality and reduce quality of outdoor experiences on these lands. The projected level of additional development and associated effects to the habitat makes it is highly unlikely that current population levels could be sustained in the future.” 
  • “There is a great Interest in hunting mule deer in North Dakota. In 2009 10,568 hunters applied for the 2, 886 antlered mule deer licenses that were issued by the department. It should be incumbent upon all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with the O/G industry could come with a cost; namely, diminished hunting and outdoor recreational opportunities through the loss of primary habitat due to direct and indirect effects of O/G development that sustains the wildlife populations that are so highly valued by the state’s citizens.”
  • There are an estimated 110,000 hunters in North Dakota; of these hunters more than 94,000 (85%) hunt deer.  More North Dakotans engage in deer hunting than any other shooting sport. It should be understood by all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with the O/G industry could come with a very high cost to our quality of life; namely, diminished hunting and outdoor recreational opportunities through the loss of habitat due to direct and indirect effects of O/G development. These critical habitat components support many species of wildlife that are highly valued by the state’s citizens.”

As we read through the 120 page report, seven times we read that warning: “It should be understood by all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with the O/G industry could come with a very high cost to our quality of life; namely, diminished hunting and outdoor recreational opportunities through the loss of habitat due to direct and indirect effects of O/G development.”

            Seven times.

Well, here we are, five years after that report was written, four years after it was released, and everything the biologists told us was true. Especially about bighorns. I won’t quote from it extensively—you can get a copy from Game and Fish and read it yourself if you want to, or by simply clicking here—but I’ll share just this one sentence about bighorns, and then a summary.

“North Dakota’s bighorn sheep habitat is considered marginal, as it falls within the eastern edge of bighorn range.”

In spite of that, Game and Fish has done what it could to introduce and protect this magnificent species here. And without oil development, maybe they could have succeeded. But the rest of the section on bighorns can be summarized in one more short sentence:

Bighorns and oil can’t co-exist.

The announcement by Game and Fish in March that there would be no bighorn season laid the blame directly on a die-off of the herd from pneumonia. Mostly likely from exposure to a herd of domestic sheep. Well, that’s the instant cause. But what they weren’t saying is that pneumonia was the straw that broke the camel’s (bighorn’s) back. It was the accumulation of all the things they warned us about in 2011, followed by a pneumonia outbreak, that did the sheep in. At least that’s what I think.

Each section of the 2011 report concluded with a section on “mitigation.” The boom is coming, they said, so here’s what we have to do to mitigate the damage it will cause. Here’s how the section on mitigation for bighorn sheep began:

“Mitigation measures are very limited regarding O/G activities within North Dakota’s bighorn sheep range because bighorn are a wilderness species requiring very specific, irreplaceable habitat characteristics to persist, with lambing habitat being the key component for the sustainability of a population . . .  O/G activities in North Dakota that do not address disturbance near critical lambing areas will undoubtedly have deleterious effects on the state’s bighorn population. Therefore, every effort should be made to reduce disturbance near lambing areas in order prevent a change in bighorn distribution, abandonment of suitable habitat, or alterations in activity patterns.”

Well, nobody listened. The oil boom went on, unchecked, as the biologists sat and wept. Figuratively, if not literally.

I can tell you, the guys at Game and Fish are getting tired of covering up the casualties caused by the Boom though. Last spring, when I was doing a story about sage grouse for Dakota Country magazine, one of the biologists, said “This massive oil and gas development is bad for wildlife, and not just sage grouse. There are other species suffering just as bad. Go ahead and use my name. I’m sick and tired of everyone walking on eggshells.”

But they aren’t giving up. I know that, at the staff level, they are doing as much as  they can to work with the industry, the mineral owners and the landowners, as well as other government agencies, to protect the critters. They have written a much shorter report called “Recommended Management Practices For Reducing Oil and Gas Impacts to Wildlife” which outlines the things that should be done–things they would like to do–to protect wildlife and its habitat. Read it here. It’s just two pages. But it’s another of those documents, I’m afraid, that nobody beyond the staff level is paying any attention to.

Finally, it is worth revisiting the final paragraph of the 2011 report. It came at the end of a detailed and somewhat technical 120 page document, and was mostly overlooked (although, to be fair,the whole report has been generally overlooked), and it contains one of the  scariest warnings I’ve seen issued by a North Dakota government agency since the boom began:

“The impacts of oil and gas development on people utilizing natural resources in North Dakota may not be fully realized for some time.  The diminished enjoyment of our natural resources will not take place overnight, but rather over the course of many years.  North Dakota currently has such high quality natural resources, considerable deterioration could occur before user groups realize the full extent of their loss.  They will have no past reference to measure the quality that will have been lost.”

That’s the very end of the report. The last word.  And it kind of describes one of those “put a frog in a pot of cool water and slowly turn up the heat” scenarios. Looking back at it now, it is remarkably accurate in its warning. A slow, gradual erosion of our outdoor resource experience is going on here. We’re finally starting to notice. But if you’re a hunter, go back and look at the numbers.Compare 2005 and 2015.  We’ve chipped away at everything. Deer. Antelope. Elk. Moose. Pheasants. Sage Grouse. Sharptail Grouse. And Bighorn Sheep.

Y’know, I know I can’t blame all this on the Oil Boom. But there are some days I really just want it to go away.



3 thoughts on “Well, We Were Warned . . .

  1. Very sad. North Dakota will be able to take a lot of credit for escalating global warming too. North dakota has always been a colony for exploitation for out of state interests who have no idea that the natural resources ND has don’t just mean those resources that can be mined. When outsiders see ND as a cold wasteland the Bighorn sheep don’t stand a chance.


  2. I agree with Severson. Animal behaviorists know that when stress is applied to a population it first affects the young the old and the all ready sick animals. When those animal numbers are reduced the stress will begin to affect the animals of reproductive age. This in turn will further reduce the population; if the stress is not reduced or removed the population could possibly be eliminated within a few generations. It sure looks like this is happening in western ND.
    So what will we have left in ND? Simply, very restrictive hunting for some species and NO hunting for others. I can hear now the O/G supporters saying that when they leave ND the animal populations will return. I don’t think so, and I beat ND Game and Fish doesn’t think so either. There’s also the matter of reclamation of the land after the O/G industry leaves; if they do nothing that WILL ensure that the animals will never return. ND is not a national example of how this should be done. Very sad.


  3. The loss of all wildlife habitat has rippled out of oil country to many central counties due to gravel pits, businesses building in low lands, draws, pasture, etc, and the edges of small towns which would have been marginal areas that wildlife could have hid in have been used for storage units owned by persons who want to make a return on their investments. We have gone over the tipping point; another loss of habitat is the loss of Conservation Reserve Program. Is there any kind of replacement program? Many people prefer to ignore these problems; I commend you for facing them squarely!


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