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Forum editorial: Why is ND wildlife in trouble?

Several studies are underway to determine why North Dakota’s wildlife populations, specifically iconic game species, are on the decline, and have been for several years. Two factors affecting wildlife – severe winters and the loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres – will come as no surprise. A third factor – unprecedented oil and gas development in prime game animal ranges – is the wild card.

The studies will be useful, but don’t expect all of them to be definitive because political considerations have a way of inserting themselves into the science. The pressure on state game managers to soften and/or minimize the effects of the industrial overlay in oil country is the stuff of whispers and off-the-record comments. As competent as the experts are, they want to keep their jobs.

Reporter Patrick Springer reported in Sunday’s Forum that the impact on wildlife is not a single-factor phenomenon. North Dakotans – outdoor people, hunters, anglers and game managers – have always known that conditions on the Northern Plains can be tough on game populations. Several severe winters, for example, can devastate the deer herd, and that’s part of the cause for the current deer decline. Drought also can be a factor. Habitat loss is a huge piece of the wildlife puzzle, and that’s where the conversion of CRP acreage to cropland has had a negative effect on game and nongame species. Winterkill routinely eliminates game fish in shallow lakes, a circumstance that can be made worse during drought when lake levels recede.

All those factors have been studied. Their effects are known because of decades of observations. The body of defining science is good. But the wild cards are habitat disruption and the potential for water and air pollution of an intensity that is new to North Dakota. Oil development has created a wildlife study frontier; that’s where the focus should be. Whatever conclusions emerge must be analyzed in a context of political and industry pressures, which, any perceptive observer knows, are as insidious as they are formidable.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.