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Pronghorn, often erroneously called antelope, peaked in the early- to mid- 2000s with a population of about 15,000, benefiting from abundant grassland habitat and mild winters. Starting in 2008, the pronghorn population plunged, though began a modest recovery in 2012. As a result of the sharp decline, only a limited hunt will be allowed this fall, the first since 2009, with a “conservative” total of 250 licenses available. Photo courtesy of North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Forum special report: ND wildlife in trouble?

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FARGO - North Dakota finds itself in the midst of a gigantic experiment concerning the sustainability of its wildlife populations.

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The unknown: At a time of unprecedented pressures as varied as intensive energy development and plummeting conservation acreage, will susceptible wildlife species be able to rebound from inevitable stresses, such as severe winters or droughts?

North Dakota will learn the answer to that question in the coming years, as worried wildlife biologists and game officials watch dramatic change sweep over the landscape.

“It’s like the stars are aligned,” said Chuck Loesch, a wildlife biologist in Bismarck for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It’s a free-for-all from what I can tell,” he added, though conceded he could be exaggerating the threats from oil and gas development in the west as well as the steep loss of conservation lands statewide.

Wildlife species as diverse as mule deer, sage grouse and pheasants have struggled in recent years. Muskrat have “crashed” after reaching a recent peak, and mountain lions are becoming scarcer. Even the official state bird, the meadowlark, is in decline as grassland habitat disappears.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department and other agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, are conducting a raft of studies to determine the effects from development and habitat loss. 

Notable wildlife trends:

  •  Deer populations have plunged in recent years. As a result, state game officials will issue 48,500 licenses this year – far below the record 145,000 or more issued during the peak in the early 2000s. 
  •  Pronghorn, which also peaked in the early 2000s, since have plummeted. Because of the steep decline, only a limited hunt will be allowed this fall, the first since 2009, with 250 licenses available.
  •  Sage grouse, found in the state’s southwest corner along the edge of their habitat range, have long struggled. This spring, a survey of males tallied the lowest on record, 31, down from 50 last year. As recently as 2007, 159 were counted.
  •  Pheasants also have struggled in recent years with the loss of grasslands. A crowing survey is up slightly from last year, but down a third from their peak.

‘Getting overrun’

Several generations of hunters and outdoor enthusiasts have become accustomed to bountiful wildlife populations, which recovered from very low numbers in the 1930s and 1940s after decades of unregulated hunting.

Deer, for example, once were so scarce that the 2,890 harvested in 1941 was regarded at the time as one of the best seasons ever. Deer and many other species soared in the 1980s with the onset of the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to idle land, providing habitat.

Critics are quick to blame dwindling wildlife populations on rampant oil and gas development in the west, with rigs drilling more than 2,100 new wells a year on pads typically of three to five acres.

Wells now top 10,000 and could exceed 50,000, according to industry projections. The new wells require access roads, fragmenting habitat, and generate widespread disturbances, including high volumes of truck traffic.

Conservationists of all stripes bemoan the alarming loss of conservation acres and resulting loss of habitat statewide.

The Conservation Reserve Program peaked around 2006-07 at 3.4 million acres in North Dakota but fell to 1.5 million acres by last year, as farmers plowed conservation acres to plant crops fetching high prices.

“The momentum of what’s going on is so large that it seems unstoppable,” said Al Sapa, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist and active member of the Wildlife Society. “We’re just getting overrun.”

But wildlife officials point to another culprit, a string of harsh winters – 2008, 2009 and 2010 – that decimated many game species.

Periodic killer winters or droughts are a fact of life on the North Dakota prairies. In the face of unprecedented pressures, however, wildlife biologists and game officials worry about many species’ ability to rebound.

Pronghorn, commonly referred to as antelope, plunged 75 percent after the brutal winter of 1996-97 but recovered with abundant habitat, said Randy Kreil, chief of the wildlife division of North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

“They bounced back to record highs,” he said. “Now, with the bad winters, they crashed again. The question is with the changing face of western North Dakota will they rebound again? That’s what we’re anxious to find out.”

Determining impact

Mule deer, whose stronghold is in the Little Missouri Badlands, are one of the sensitive species under study by state game officials, now in the third year of a five-year study.

So far, biologists have found that oil and gas development in combination with predation by coyotes form a bad mix for mule deer.

Together, they have “substantial consequences” for fawn survival and therefore the mule deer’s resilience.

Adequate habitat should help maintain balance, therefore the “ultimate cause” for fawn mortality, researchers believe, is “habitat loss and fragmentation caused by industrial development.”

Protecting key habitat will be crucial to defending wildlife populations, biologists said. In the case of mule deer, eradicating predators is not the answer, researchers concluded.

Studies involving mule deer and other species, including sharp-tailed grouse and mountain lions, will determine the influence of varying degrees of oil and gas development on wildlife.

Bighorn sheep, reintroduced to the Badlands in 1956 after being extirpated around 1905 after decades of unregulated hunting, have maintained a small though stable population of about 350.

Protecting lambing grounds, typically on rough, rocky bluffs, is critical to maintaining the bighorn herds, said Brett Wiedmann, a big game biologist for the state.

Biologists are trying to determine the minimum safe distance of drilling pads from lambing sites, often too rugged for drillers to tackle, he said.

“Unlike many of the other species, bighorns have actually increased,” Wiedmann said. “We’re at near records in the state.”

No seat at the table

Wildlife populations have been monitored and surveyed for decades, but wildlife officials need solid scientific information to drive management decisions, said Terry Steinwand, North Dakota’s game and fish director.

“We’re learning a lot from these studies,” he said. At the same time, wildlife officials have established recommendations for oil developers to minimize impacts to wildlife.

“You can’t just take a snapshot in time,” Kreil said. “You have to have a longer period to handle the variables,” including weather, predator population, availability of food and habitat as well as disease.

Biologists routinely make recommendations for placement of wells or other petroleum infrastructure during permit reviews by regulators, but their input is purely advisory.

“In that game, we don’t have a seat at the table,” Kreil said, referring to the regulation of oil and gas, primarily handled by the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.

Game officials also make recommendations regarding mineral development on state public lands, but that arrangement so far has mostly involved sites that have yet to be drilled, he said.

“The next few years would tell the story whether that’s working or not,” Kreil said.

Some advocates worry that intense pressures could cause sharp declines in wildlife populations before management plans can be devised based on research projects that remain two years from completion.

“The problem is, five years down the road you’ll know what should have been done,” Sapa said. “You’ll have 10,000 more wells.”

Regulators probably are doing more than is obvious to the public, Sapa conceded. Still, he worries about the ongoing fragmentation and loss of habitat.

“The agencies are doing what they can,” he said. “In the big scheme of things, that’s not a lot. It’s (development) is kind of running on its own momentum.”

New fund proposed

Sapa and other wildlife advocates say the state should establish a habitat bank. The state does have partnerships with landowners, including payments to owners who allow hunters access to their land.

Mike McEnroe, a retired wildlife biologist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said passage of a proposed constitutional amendment to set aside 5 percent of oil revenues could provide enough money to fund a state version of the dwindling Conservation Reserve Fund.

CRP, as it commonly is called, once was popular with farmers but has lost its luster in recent years as higher crop prices have made the conservation program less attractive.

If the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment makes it onto the November ballot and passes, it would provide an estimated $4.7 billion over 25 years – a “conservative” projection by opponents, who dismiss the initiative as an expensive boondoggle.

McEnroe sketched out a hypothetical example of what a state CRP program might look like.

If North Dakota were to set a goal of setting aside a million acres for conservation, it might pay $50 per acre and an access fee of $6 per acre per year, as well as a one-time cost-share of $50 per acre for seeding costs.

Such a program would cost $56 million per year, plus $50 million for seeding spread out over 10 years. If extended for 15 years, the program would have a total cost of $896 million, according to McEnroe’s figures.

“Let’s figure out what we’re doing other than reacting after the fact, when our options are really limited” McEnroe said.

Whatever the solution, preserving habitat is the key to maintaining healthy wildlife populations, biologists agreed.

“Unless something changes with the habitat trends in this state, I think they’re right,” Kreil said, referring to concerns about a future with significantly diminished wildlife.

“The habitat base is the key,” he said, adding that he is not taking a position on any ballot proposal. “All trends are pointing downward.”

Kreil added: “The decisions we make in the next several years will determine what sort of hunting and fishing opportunities we have in the future. North Dakota has to decide.”

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Patrick Springer
Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com
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