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Patrick Springer, Published January 26 2014

Advocates talk resource, animal protection

FARGO – Conservation advocates gathered Saturday to explore strategies to engage sportsmen in a broad coalition to protect North Dakota’s hunting heritage in the face of rapid energy development and the loss of conservation lands.

The summit, hosted by the Protect Theodore Roosevelt National Park Coalition, was aimed at protecting wildlife habitat, which is being fragmented by oil drilling or lost to the conversion of conservation reserve acreage to cropland.

Sportsmen so far have not organized to make the case for habitat conservation, but should think about the consequences of significant energy development, said John Cooper, a fish and wildlife expert who was the keynote speaker.

“The pertinent question is what’s western North Dakota going to look like after that 40,000th oil well has been drilled?” Cooper said in an interview, referring to predictions that up to 40,000 wells could be drilled in the state, which now has

about 10,000 wells.

“What will be the impact on habitat fragmentation?” Cooper said.

South Dakota’s tourism economy recently took a significant hit when the state’s pheasant population plummeted by 64 percent due to bad weather and the loss of thousands of conservation acres converted to cornfields, Cooper said.

Pheasant hunting contributes $217 million to South Dakota’s economy, according to a study by the University of South Dakota, and tourism operators lost 15 percent to 20 percent of their pheasant hunting-related business because of the crash in pheasant numbers from 2012 to 2013, Cooper said.

“When you lose the critters, when you lose the resources, you have other impacts,” he said. “Those impacts can be significant.”

A coalition of hunters, wildlife, recreation and farming interests was formed to work on conservation measures in farm bill legislation – but those programs are being gutted because of budget pressures, Cooper said.

That means North Dakota must look at its own funding mechanisms to preserve habitat and protect its natural resources, he said.

So far, it doesn’t appear that North Dakota has devised a comprehensive inventory of its natural resources, and the threats from development and how to protect those natural assets, said Cooper, a longtime U.S. Fish and Wildlife official and former director of the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks Department.

“What’s the plan?” he asked. “Where do we go from here in regards to natural resource reclamation?”

As a result of the loss of pheasant habitat, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard formed a working group.

Nobody is advocating stopping energy development, which is too important to the national and North Dakota economies, Cooper said. But hunters, outdoor enthusiasts must become involved in protecting the outdoors they love, he said.

North Dakota’s tourism industry hasn’t yet felt the impact, Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, said

“Hotels and restaurants are full of oil workers, so they don’t see a crisis yet,” he said. But already he has heard of longtime hunters in North Dakota who now go elsewhere because of impacts to the Little Missouri Badlands and reductions in game.

The coalition is not being formed to promote the North Dakota Clean Water, Wildlife & Parks Amendment, which seeks to set aside oil revenues for outdoor heritage protection, Morrison said.

“That’s really not the agenda,” he said, adding that his organization has members who oppose the proposed measure and is not taking a position on the issue.