Impact on the uplands

STANLEY – A large share of North Dakota’s prime upland game habitat has seen significant changes in the past many months. The Bakken oil boom has brought thousands of workers to the western part of the state, where tracts of land, both vast and seemingly insignificant, have been dramatically altered due to the search for oil.

Prairie trails that served both farmers at harvest time and enthusiastic hunters each autumn, have been transformed into high grade roadways capable of handling large semi-trailer traffic serving oil field activities. As the quest for oil continues at a fevered pace, previously unbroken land has been cleared to make way for disposal sites, storage tanks or vehicle parking.

In many instances the land was home to upland game birds such as sharp-tailed grouse, and had been visited by hunters for tens of years. The pressure has taken a toll on both birds and hunters. Exact statistics may be in dispute, but the number of sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge hunters has been on the decline. So, too, has the number of birds. Short term? Perhaps, but loss of habitat says otherwise.

Between thousands of Conservation Reserve Program acres being removed from the program, and energy development continuing to expand, the future of wildlife in impacted areas is perilous at best. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department repeatedly stated the “good old days” were here a few years ago, citing high wildlife populations and increased hunting opportunities.

Deer, pheasants and sharp-tailed grouse were so abundant that harvests were approaching or exceeding previous records. Now the number of deer licenses has been cut in half from a few years ago and upland game bird surveys show numbers plummeting.

There are a number of factors influencing game populations, including tough winters, but it is a loss of habitat that remains major concern. Without habitat, a place to live and raise young, there is a diminishing likelihood of wildlife experiencing a significant rebound.

“Loss of habitat is probably a major concern,” said Greg Gullickson, outreach biologist with Game and Fish. “Oil production does take habitat away from wildlife.”

This year’s upland game populations have dropped considerably from a year ago. According to Game and Fish roadside surveys, sharp-tailed grouse numbers are down 51 percent from a year ago and Hungarian partridge are down 34 percent. Pheasant counts show similar drops in bird numbers.

Biologists say cold and wet conditions during the upland game bird nesting season is a contributing factor to reduced hatching success. Birds hatched in the spring are usually in full plumage for the fall hunting seasons. They are also considered the future of the species in any given area. Because upland game birds have a limited lifespan, new birds are necessary to maintain populations.

“Fall hunting season success is directly correlated to the current year’s reproductive success. If there is a good hatch, then logically there will be more birds on the landscape come fall hunting season,” said Aaron Robinson, NDG&F upland game biologist.

According to Robinson, the telling factor in upland game populations is always the late-summer counts. As discouraging as this year’s counts are, no single factor can receive all of the blame. Rather, it is a combination of events merging together that somewhat clouds the conclusion.

In previous years, biologists could determine with a reasonable amount of certainty what factors led to a good or poor upland game bird hatch. In recent years, additional influences, such as CRP loss and the impacts of energy development, have been added to the equation. Those variables, coupled with a wet spring during the critical time when young broods are particularly vulnerable to nature’s elements, lend a certain degree of uncertainty as to the precise reasons for a population decline.

The state’s hunters have experienced poor hatching seasons before and limited success in the field. However, game bird populations always seemed to rebound a year or two later and hunters enjoyed ample opportunities. Now, though, given the changing landscape due to energy development over a large portion of the state and loss of CRP land, an increasing number of sportsmen believe a rebound in bird populations to previous numbers is not possible.

“As we adjust to the new normal – oil wells, traffic and things like that -things continue to change,” said Gullickson. “There is a progression that goes through.”

Progression in western North Dakota has been on the fast track, much too fast for many who had grown comfortable with rural living. Man camps, campgrounds and other small communities have sprung up virtually overnight. Towns in the heart of the nation’s prime sharp-tailed grouse range – Tioga, Watford City, Alexander, Williston, Stanley, New Town, White Earth, Ross – have undergone a dramatic transformation and growth.

Williston, for many years a city with less than 20,000 population is now projected to reach as high as 60,000. Watford City has boomed from 1,400 people to an estimated 10,000 today. No one knows for sure, but some predictions have Watford City reaching 16,000 residents in the coming months. Similar stories are playing out throughout the Bakken.

With more people, inevitably, comes more pressure on the state’s upland game birds. New roads, and improved roads, throughout the oil patch has made access to diminishing hunting lands easier than ever before. Hunting locations once considered secluded are now easily reached on improved roadways. The combination of more people, more pressure on the resource and continually shrinking habitat does not bode well for the future of upland game and other wildlife.

Amidst the negative impacts of energy development, a sliver of hope is beginning to emerge in some areas. In some locales the worst of the oil boom appears to be over. In a few select areas where there was constant truck travel and numerous people working on pipelines and oil wells in the past, the activity has settled down and a certain degree of “normalcy” has returned to the landscape.

Permanent scars remain, such as pumping sites or wastewater disposal sites where hunters have walked for sharp-tailed grouse for decades. While energy development has claimed a number of acres of land previously utilized by wildlife, the loss is tempered somewhat by a settling down of development in select areas.

An example is land disturbed by pipeline construction, sometimes through prime upland game habitat, has been reclaimed and appears much as it did prior to pipeline construction. Elsewhere, oil well sites that were once busy with people are now a leveled and graveled area containing one or more pumpheads. The pumps will be checked occasionally, but the flurry of activity is gone.

It is indisputable that less habitat translates to less upland game. How much less depends a great deal on future trends in energy development. To a lesser degree, severity of winters, hatching success, predators and hunting pressure will play a role in upland game populations too, but Game and Fish and sportsmen have dealt with those influences in years past.

One certainty today is that the quiet landscape that has been infinitely appealing to thousands of hunters for decades in western North Dakota has become only a memory in a few months time. The chuckle of sharp-tailed grouse that was previously heard for a mile or more across unbroken prairie has been replaced by the whining sounds of semi-trailers on a newly surfaced highway and the rhythmic beating of pumping oil wells. For many, the change is significant.

For those who have long enjoyed western North Dakota for its solitude and open landscape, seeing the unprecedented development there is akin to losing a best friend. The enthusiasm for the hunt is proportionally diminished.

Young hunters and those new to the area may experience it from a different perspective. Historically, the number of hours hunters spend in the field has been directly proportional to upland game populations. How those birds will fare in the future remains an unknown but the most recent trend may foretell what hunters can expect in future years.

North Dakota’s sharp-tailed grouse, ruffed grouse and Hungarian partridge season opens Saturday.