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Published March 11 2013

Forum editorial: Wildlife and oil don’t mix

No matter how pretty a picture the oil industry and state officials try to paint, the impacts on wildlife and habitat in North Dakota’s Oil Patch will be significant, and not positive. Several studies are under way in oil country to gauge effects on sensitive game and non-game species, including the iconic mule deer. There is no doubt that as the number of oil rigs in the grasslands, Badlands and other places explodes from 7,000 to 35,000 in the next few years, wildlife populations will be severely affected. It’s happening already.

In a display of candor not often associated with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, a biologist said, “There will be substantial reduction in our wildlife populations. I don’t think there’s anyone who can argue that.” Of course, the industry and agencies that sometimes seem to be working for the industry will dispute the degree of damage to wildlife and habitat. They have a credibility problem.

Even as studies to quantify impact proceed, non-state agency wildlife experts who are not bound by the heady oil-at-any-cost culture of state government are speaking out. “It’s gone already,” is a common theme among them, whether they are former state and federal employees, longtime residents of the region, or hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts. Once habitat is compromised – that is cut up by oil roads, polluted by 24/7 truck traffic, road dust and noise – animals either move out or their populations, decline, or both.

Coincidentally, the attention to damage to wildlife and habitat is coming just as a new study from North Dakota State University reports the annual contribution of hunting and fishing to the state’s economy is $1.4 billion. Oil and gas, of course, contribute a great deal also. The industry will announce its calculation of economic impact this week. Expect big numbers.

And therein beats the heart of the matter. What values do North Dakotans value most? Who will determine the balance between the obvious benefits of oil development and the equally obvious downsides? Will public policy tend toward short-term gain, as it is now, or toward a longer vision that anticipates the day when the rigs and trucks go away? That’s a day that surely will come. And when it does, what will be left in oil country for generations not yet born to live with, and to clean up?

No easy answers. But the questions are not being asked often enough.

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