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Published December 10 2012

Forum editorial: ND cattle at risk? Find out

Reports coming out of North Dakota’s Oil Patch suggest livestock are dying because of oil development. (See Amy Dalrymple’s story in Monday’s Forum.) We say “suggest” because at this point, good science has not been brought to bear on the alleged problem.

There is no question that something is occurring that might be related to the intensity of oil and gas activities in oil counties. Anecdotal evidence, while not hard statistical or scientific proof, cannot be dismissed out of hand. There are just too many stories from ranchers, some of whom are reluctant to talk publicly about what they are experiencing for fear of being branded “anti-oil.” And at least one rancher, who has gone public with complaints about oil’s effect on her cattle, won’t reveal test and autopsy results on dead cattle because of possible future legal action.

State officials who deal with such problems and allegations seem unenthused about taking a close look. The state veterinarian, for example, told The Forum she is not aware of oil field-related health problems in cattle, other than the effects of dust from truck traffic. A vet from oil country seemed dismissive of concerns, saying, “Cattle die from natural causes all the time. It’s an innate, knee-jerk reaction to blame the oil field for all our problems.”

In the first case, not being aware of a problem does not necessarily mean the problem is not real. In the second case, the acceleration and intensity of oil field development is unprecedented, so it is not unreasonable for ranchers and others to conclude the effects on livestock could be multiplied.

That’s the point. The situation right now is rife with anecdotes, rumors and talk at livestock sales barns. No one, it seems, is doing the sort of comprehensive scientific assessment of what’s really going on out there. A board member of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association summed up the situation pretty well. “We’re just relying on our state agencies,” said Jason Leiseth, who ranches near Arnegard. “They’re telling us it’s (oil field development) safe. Until something is proven differently, I guess that’s what we’re going to continue to believe.”

But is it safe? The state agencies that Leiseth is relying on respond to individual rancher concerns (when ranchers ask), but credible conclusions seem tentative or elusive.

As important and welcome as is oil development, the heritage and value of cattle ranching should not be compromised. The oil industry, stockmen’s group and appropriate state agencies should partner up and mount a comprehensive examination of what is either a real problem, overblown rumor or something in between. Do the serious work to find out which it is. North Dakota owes its ranchers at least that much.

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

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