It slips into the realm of offensive when a resource management agency is forced to undo its own hard work. The North Dakota Game and Fish Agency recently did just that by helicoptering 26 of 28 bighorn sheep out of the habitat it had carefully helicoptered the animals into in 2006. The herd, near Theodore Roosevelt National Park, was being decimated by a sharp spike in the truck traffic that sprang up to serve the booming oil and gas Bakken shallow gas play in the northwest part of the state.
Transplanted bighorn populations struggle for decades to survive, and some, including this one, may never become viable. It was originally dropped into this landscape in response to a historical extermination; the intent was to fix an ecological hole in the ecosystem.
But the attempted repairs have now come undone because the state lacks the regulatory backbone — or power — to deal with the exploding energy industry. As a resident of Alberta, Canada, home of North America’s most destructive and unregulated oil and gas industry, I know what it’s like to be “rolled.” Very few political or democratic structures can stand their ground when an oil and gas industry tsunami hits. The industry lays a shroud of money, extracted almost exclusively from the public’s own purse, over its political, regulatory and media systems. North Dakota is just the most recent victim.
The oil and gas industry seems to view a fragile bighorn sheep population and its habitat as a “minor irritation” at best. And why not, when the very state agency created to manage and conserve such wildlife and habitat folds under the slightest pressure? Like many other state agencies, North Dakota’s Game and Fish has always struggled with professionalism, and it has never engaged in a down-and-dirty fight for the resources it was created to protect. Playing dead, however, only works for so long: You’ll get mauled when the dog finally wakes up, no matter how carefully and quietly you tiptoe around it.
The oil and gas industry has become one of the most heavily subsidized industries in the history of North American society. In North Dakota, it pays one of the lowest tax rates in the nation as it sucks up about a billion dollars in tax and regulatory freebees annually. By not paying its fair share through royalties and severance taxes, it pockets money it should be paying in taxes, depriving conservation agencies and citizens of adequate funding and an honest share of resource revenue. Thanks to these government handouts, it also buys political influence and regulatory lenience.
Now, North Dakota’s Fish and Game Department is adding another subsidy by moving a wildlife population out of harm’s way so the industry can exploit another landscape. The department has been cast aside, becoming a political pawn. In a way, one has to pity it: It’s behaving exactly like a street cleaner following the parade, picking up the poop deposited by the horses that star in the event.
I disagree with the chief of the Wildlife Division who said that his department “can’t do a thing about” protecting the bighorn sheep. There is a solution, and he should be up on his bully pulpit saying so. That is to put up to three 500-yard sections of the highway underground — the stretches critical to bighorn movements — and fence the rest so the road can’t keep on killing.
Like coyotes, I hear the good old boys yowling, “Why, that’s outrageous and expensive!” Perhaps it is, but it’s way past time to start putting the remnants of our wildlife first.
The North Dakota Legislature recently killed a bill creating a Heritage Fund; it was inadequate, but it would have given Game and Fish $10 million. Here is what should happen in its stead: The state should impose a conservation fee of 10 cents on every cubic foot of gas and $1 on every barrel of oil extracted from public land or exported from the state. In 2012 alone, that would have amounted to a land and water conservation fund of about $250 million. It is barely 1 percent of the market value of the petroleum and natural gas the state is giving up, but more than enough to build the underpasses that would help to keep the Little Missouri bighorn population intact.
The solution — getting the incredibly profitable oil and gas industry to pay its fair share to the people whose land it exploits — is sitting right there in the State Capitol. But it will take an indignant people to force it into place.
Brian Horejsi is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a conservationist who lives in Alberta, Canada.