What about wildlife?

What about wildlife?

Aug 18

Audubon Society weighs tough decision on mineral rights

By Mila Koumpilova – Forum Communications

BLAISDELL, N.D. – As oil exploration advanced on a patch of family land in northwestern North Dakota, Alan Wicks felt torn. A child of the Great Depression, he was seduced by the idea of tapping the oil and fascinated by drilling technologies. But as a passionate nature lover, he couldn’t bear seeing a single bird nest trampled.

If only there were a way to drill on the edge of the virgin grasslands and go under, he mused. That was back in the 1970s. In the early 1990s, Wicks and his family donated the 400 acres with most of the mineral rights to the National Audubon Society, one of the country’s oldest environmental nonprofits.

Darlene and Lawrence Bruhn look over the property southwest of Blaisdell where they used to raise cattle, as an oil truck whizzes past. The land is now the Frederick Wicks Prairie Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo by Dave Samson, The Forum

Today, the society is weighing oil company offers to drill on that land. If you ask Genevieve Thompson of Audubon Dakota how tempting the offers are, she thinks for a long time.

“You want to make sure you are not trading a short-term benefit for long-term consequence, for something that once you’ve lost it, you can’t get back,” she said of oil development. “There really need to be places that are just unaltered.”

The feverish oil drilling that’s pumping millions into North Dakota’s coffers and new vitality into once-shrinking towns is unfolding in a corner of the state conservationists deem near-sacred. It hosts unspoiled washes of native prairie, where migratory birds linger to have their babies, where sharp-tailed grouse dance their elaborate courtship dance and whooping cranes swoop down to rest on their trek from Canada to Texas.

More sophisticated technology – including the horizontal drilling Wicks pictured in the ’70s – is allowing the industry to tap the oil with less damage and disruption to sensitive habitats. And some conservationists give the oil companies credit for being more open to working around such habitats.

But others worry it’s all happening too fast to keep track of the effects on the prairie and some of its most vulnerable tenants. They fear something precious that can’t be brought back might be lost in the scramble.

Delicate terrains

The Frederick L. Wicks Prairie Wildlife Sanctuary lies a short drive off U.S. Highway 2 near Blaisdell, an expanse of rolling grasslands and wetlands tucked between farms and 1,000 acres of federally protected waterfowl production area.

The refuge, on a busy bird migration corridor called the Mississippi Flyway, draws pintails, teal, shovelers, widgeons, mallards and gadwalls.

Frederick was Alan Wicks’ father, a Valley City eye doctor who bought the land early in the last century. But it was Alan, a zoologist and teacher in Anchorage, who came to cherish the place.

A tray of cuttings from the Bakken Formation. Photo by Eric Hylden, Grand Forks Herald

A hawk feather stuck in his trademark red felt hat, he came out occasionally to camp, fish and take photos of flowers. Once, mosquitoes got so bad, he and a companion fled to a Stanley hotel, recalled Lawrence and Darlene Bruhn, who raised cattle on the Wicks land for 15 years and befriended Alan. Another time, he tried to bring a live skunk back to Alaska.

The arrival of oil exploration to the region pitted two essential parts of Wicks’ worldview against each other, said his son, Rick. There was the would-be businessman dreaming up schemes such as shipping Alaskan fern to Seattle flower shops. Then, there was the nature lover who pulled over to study road kill with his children.

“He was always interested in wilderness and the environment,” Rick Wicks said. “At the same time, he was always thinking of ways to make money.”

Back in the 1980s, the boom went bust before it made it out to the Wicks land, which Alan decided to donate while he was dying of lung cancer. Now, the Audubon Society faces the decision he never had to make.

Thompson said when it comes to oil company offers, the nonprofit is in a “holding pattern,” grappling with a slew of unknowns.

They are questions hounding all area conservationists: Will the bustling roads, noise and bright lights of oil development chase away animals that like it quiet? Will tall vertical structures – rigs and pumps – interfere with the ways of migratory birds? Will new roads lead opportunistic predators, like skunk and fox, to the nests of birds that have seen drastic population declines in recent decades?

And in these post-Gulf Coast disaster days, there’s the specter of spills and contamination.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” said Dave Gillund, project leader at the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge north of Stanley. “It’s all new to us, and it’s happening fast.”

The big rush

Jeff Towner, supervisor of the North Dakota field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wishes it all were happening slower.

He says companies should be checking in with the service before they drill to avoid running afoul of federal wildlife legislation, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. More often than not, that isn’t happening, despite efforts by Towner’s office to get the word out.

On the Elkhorn Ranch in western North Dakota, some older cottonwood trees are believed to have been around at the time Theodore Roosevelt lived and ranched there. Photo by John Steiner, Jamestown Sun

Because the service doesn’t have the staff to monitor each drilling site, it relies on reports of possible violations – roughly a dozen of them in the past six months – which likely reflect a fraction of the issues out there.

Among them were a drilling pad on the shore of White Lake, close to stomping grounds for the endangered piping plover, and two pads a hundred yards away from a golden eagle nest, “way closer than we’d like to see.”

“There’s a lot of wildlife habitat that’s being converted to oil drilling pads and roads,” says Towner. “It’s going forward so fast, and the companies’ priority is to get the permits they need and proceed with their projects.”

Since 2008, the law enforcement division of the service has concluded 15 investigations of such violations, said special agent Rich Grosz. All resulted in fines of $500 to $2,000. But moving a drilling site? It costs $4 million to $5 million to establish one, Grosz pointed out.

The agency has also met with a mixed reaction to a mass mailing campaign to encourage netting of reserve oil pits, which is not required by the state of North Dakota. Birds often can’t tell the difference between a pit and a wetland, and Grosz has pulled more than 30 different kinds, from ducks to horn larks, from pits.

The service estimates between 500,000 and 1 million birds die in such pits nationwide each year. The fines when an agent finds a migratory or endangered bird in a pit: $500 to $2,000.

Pointing fingers

When Karen Smith retired after almost a quarter-century of managing the Lostwood Refuge in 2002, she built a home not far to the north, down a minimum maintenance road. It’s a straw bale house, with geothermal heating, recycled wood for the rustic interior and artwork of wolf, bison and grouse.

“We tried to blend in as much as we could,” she said. Smith chafes at the sight of an oil pump churning just beyond a lake and a stretch of prairie from her living room window. A natural gas flare splashes an orange glow across the horizon at night, dimming the brightness of the stars.

The sun sets over a drilling rig west of New Town. Photo by Eric Hylden, Grand Forks Herald

She recently checked her water well for benzene, toluene, xylenes and ethylbenzene — chemicals on a state Health Department checklist for those living close to oil wells. (The test came back negative, but she can’t bring herself to drink well water any more.)

She calls it “the oil invasion.”

“Why would you live here if you wanted all kinds of development?” she said. “You live here because of the countryside, the quietness, the variety of wildlife. This is an intrusion on people’s lifestyles.”

Gillund, of the Lostwood Refuge, gives the oil industry credit. The refuge, named one of the top 500 globally important bird areas by the American Bird Conservancy, is off-limits to oil development. But its staff also manages 1,300 acres of waterfowl production areas, where the federal government owns only partial or no mineral rights.

In the past two years, Gillund said, his staff has negotiated with roughly two dozen oil companies interested in drilling there, encouraging them to pick alternative, less sensitive sites:

“They are concerned, and they are interested in hearing our concerns.”

Ron Ness, head of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, an oil industry group, said new technology allows the industry to go easier on the prairie.

Extended-reach horizontal drilling, which lets companies extract oil underneath the cities of Williston and Dickinson, Lake Sakakawea and numerous farmsteads, can also keep disturbance to the edges of sensitive habitat. It lets companies drill one well where there would have been eight.

The industry has dubbed clusters of as many as eight horizontal wells radiating out from the same pad as “eco-pads.” They are gaining traction in North Dakota. And it’s touting its success in reducing the time it takes to drill a well – the noisiest, most disruptive part of the extraction process – from 60 to fewer than 30 days in five years. (All of these changes help the bottom line too: Renting a drilling rig, for instance, costs $50,000 a day.)

“There’s a substantial amount of activity going on, and there are always impacts,” Ness said. But, he added, “All of these new technologies are greatly reducing the footprint the industry has.”

Conservationists also acknowledge that, for the most part, they haven’t documented adverse effects on wildlife yet: birds abandoning their nests or whooping cranes snubbing the wetlands where they rest along their route.

But the unknowns linger. Some of these animals are extremely vulnerable: Estimates put the global population of whooping cranes at fewer than 500.

“Has something dramatic changed right now?” Gillund asked. “The answer would be, ‘We haven’t noticed anything.’ But one has to feel there would have to be some impacts.”

Ron Shupe, a retired wildlife biologist and head of the North Dakota chapter of the Wildlife Society’s energy committee, said no North Dakota agency has the staff and resources to effectively monitor the big-picture effects of rapid development that’s outpacing science. A friend at the Game and Fish Department recently sent him a picture of an oil well a company had drilled during the winter, only to discover once the snow melted it was smack in the middle of a wetland.

“The industry has made great strides over the past 20 years to develope technologies that are kinder to the environment,” Shupe said. “The big question is, ‘Is it enough?’ ”

Meanwhile, oil development has arrived in the vicinity of the Wicks sanctuary. Oil trucks whiz by hourly along the gravel road setting it off from adjoining farmland.

“It’s coming, and it’s huge, and I don’t know if it’s good or bad,” said Lawrence Bruhn, whose wife spread some of Alan Wicks’ ashes on the rolling hills of the refuge.

Rick Wicks, Alan’s son, believes there might be a way to balance the competing interests in the land: “Our feeling is that if the Audubon Society can make money from the mineral rights without disrupting the surface, more power to them.”

But Smith, a one-time mentor of Audubon Dakota’s Thompson, hopes the society will say no to the oil company offers. Yet she also realizes the down economy has hit many environmental nonprofits hard. And oil, besides filling the state’s coffers, fills the tanks of the three vehicles Smith drives: a tractor, a pickup truck and a Saturn sedan.

“When you point a finger,” she said, “you have three fingers pointing back at you.”

Koumpilova is at mkoumpilova@ forumcomm.com.