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Researchers study effects of oil drilling on North Dakota wildlife

The deer is hobbled and blindfolded while crews attach a radio collar. Does and their fawns will be tracked to determine impacts on mule deer from energy development. Credit all photos: North Dakota Game and Fish Department

FARGO - Mule deer in the Little Missouri Badlands recently were equipped with radio collars to enable biologists to track their movements and mortality.

The research is one of several studies under way in western North Dakota to determine the effects on wildlife species from unprecedented oil and gas drilling and production.

Adverse impacts come from drilling, road building, truck traffic and noise, as well as expansion of urban areas.

Oil and gas officials predict the number of oil wells in North Dakota, now about 7,000, will multiply to 35,000 or more in the next two or three decades, causing a significant reduction in wildlife habitat.

“There will be substantial reduction in our wildlife populations,” said Aaron Robinson, a wildlife biologist with the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish. “I don’t think there's anyone who can argue that.”

Mule deer are considered an indicator species, providing an early reading on the impacts of development on wildlife.

“They are a good indicator species because they browse on a lot of plants,” said Jesse Kolar, a graduate student from the University of Missouri who is doing field work in the mule deer study.

If the diversity of plants is reduced, the diet of the mule deer suffers, and the population can decline over time, he said. Biologists will study mule deer populations, primarily in Badlands terrain, from the Amidon area in the south to the Watford City and Tobacco Gardens area near Lake Sakakawea.

Ninety females that have been equipped with collars will be tracked for three years under a project involving the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and other research partners.

Researchers will monitor survival rates, noting whether does and fawns survive from spring into summer and through the winter, Kolar said.

Another team of biologists has been studying sage grouse populations in western North Dakota.

Sage grouse require sagebrush habitat, classically found in relatively flat terrain, said Robinson, who is involved in the grouse study.

Results are preliminary, and researchers are studying the data to distinguish between impacts on sage grouse populations from oil and gas development and impacts from other influences, including weather patterns.

“There definitely is an effect," Robinson said, referring to activities associated with oil and gas development. “We’re trying to quantify the amount. It’s a challenge.”

Habitat destruction or disruptions displace animals, both mammals and birds, Robinson said.

“It just pushes these animals into areas that are not as optimal,” he said, driving mortality rates higher. “It's just kind of a domino effect.”

Preliminary results of another study found that several grassland bird species are avoiding oil drilling sites.

The pilot study, headed by the U.S. Geological Survey, is intended to establish a baseline that can be tracked over time, a goal of the sage grouse and mule deer studies.

“There was a lot of concern about what was happening,” said Doug Johnson, a USGS researcher. “We’re aware that there’s an incredible amount of human activity out there.”

Surveys of 17 oil well sites in western North Dakota found evidence that several species, most notably grasshopper sparrows, are avoiding oil wells.

Grassland bird species are sensitive to habitat fragmentation. Almost half of North Dakota’s oil wells are located within grasslands.

“We don't know what the effects are long term,” Johnson said.

Researchers hope to continue the grassland bird studies for several years, assuming funding is available.

Meanwhile, the North Dakota Legislature is weighing proposals to create an outdoor heritage fund.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple has proposed an outdoor protection fund of $15 million a year to aid conservation.

However, the proposal, which has passed the House and a Senate committee, does not allow the money to be used for land purchases or easements lasting more than 20 years.

Conservation advocates had been promoting a conservation fund that would generate more than $100 million a year, a funding level that so far has not won significant legislative support.

“Obviously it’s better than nothing,” Mike McEnroe, a leading wildlife advocate, said of the $15 million-a-year conservation fund.

However, because of the limitations in the use of the fund, and the magnitude of the threats to wildlife habitat, from energy development and farming of former conservation acres, the proposal falls short of the need, McEnroe said.

A recent study shows hunting and fishing, which depend on habitat, contribute $1.4 billion a year to the North Dakota economy.

“Even $100 million a year is a relatively small amount for a $1.4 billion-a-year tourism and outdoor recreation industry,” McEnroe said.

Article written by Patrick Springer of the Forum News Service

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