North Dakota game officials' concerns noted in mineral lease auction
BISMARCK - North Dakota public lands officials say they have incorporated many recommendations by state game officials to protect wildlife habitat on more than 50,000 acres slated for mineral leasing.
Oil and gas developers have proposed leases on 54,000 acres of land falling under at least partial control of the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands. Officials will auction mineral leases on the properties Tuesday in Medora.
Many of the tracts in western North Dakota are near critical wildlife habitat or natural landmarks in the badlands, including Bullion Butte, White Butte and Pretty Butte.
North Dakota Game and Fish Department officials have submitted detailed written comments with recommended restrictions on many of the tracts to limit the impacts on wildlife.
For example, officials recommend no land surface occupancy along or within a half-mile of the shoreline of Lake Sakakawea, critical habitat for piping plovers and least terns.
Game and Fish officials also recommend no surface occupancy or restricted development on areas that provide important habitat for pronghorns and mule deer.
"We didn't dispute any of their findings," Lance Gaebe, state lands commissioner, said of the Game and Fish Department recommendations.
By and large, he said, the lands office at least noted the game officials' concerns.
But Jan Swenson, a conservation advocate, said even stringent restrictions would be insufficient for some areas she believes should not be leased for development.
"With many of these tracts, at least at this time, it would be smarter in our estimation to deny the lease nomination," said Swenson, a spokeswoman for the Badlands Conservation Alliance.
"Operational mitigation measures to reduce impact, including timing restrictions, location adjustments and reduced or restricted surface occupancy may be required," an updated list of lease tracts released Wednesday specifies for certain parcels.
Other agencies, including federal wildlife and historic preservation officials, also have submitted comments flagging concerns about locations proposed for mineral leasing.
In response, state lands officials have imposed restrictions or alerted developers that restrictions could apply to protect historical, paleontological or archeological resources.
For areas of the Stewart Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Slope County, state lands officials did not prohibit surface occupancy, but did specify that energy developers would need permission from state and federal wildlife officials before drilling.
Jim Fuglie, an avid hunter and conservation advocate, said he is disappointed the state didn't flatly bar drilling on land it oversees on the refuge.
He also said the list of tracts extends far south of the booming Bakken Formation, with leasing proposed for 17,000 acres in Slope County that have seen little or no oil and gas development and contain some of North Dakota's most distinctive landmarks.
"Soon, all we'll have left is a couple of little islands - the two units of (Theodore Roosevelt National Park) - in a vast sea of development, changing the Badlands forever," Fuglie said.
In some cases, the lands department does not have surface ownership, and has very limited oversight, Gaebe said. Also, the tracts often are interspersed with land in private ownership, where development can be more intrusive than on public lands subject to conditions or restrictions, he said.