Oil Patch study aims to shed light on impact of oil, gas development on duck production and density

A study underway in the Oil Patch of northwest North Dakota and northeast Montana aims to gauge the impact of energy development on waterfowl productivity in the part of the Prairie Pothole Region that falls within the Bakken Formation.

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A crew of researchers has begun a study looking at the impact of oil development in the Bakken Formation on waterfowl productivity. Pictured (from left) are Tanner Gue of Ducks Unlimited in Bismarck, Chad Worthington, Nick Bakner, Korey Schrader, Garrett Cacciola and Katie Long. (Ducks Unlimited photo)

A study underway in the Oil Patch of northwest North Dakota and northeast Montana aims to gauge the impact of energy development on waterfowl productivity in the part of the Prairie Pothole Region that falls within the Bakken Formation.

Widely known as North America's "duck factory, the Prairie Pothole Region covers about 276,000 square miles in parts of the Dakotas, Montana, Minnesota and Iowa and the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Nearly one-third of the PPR overlaps with the Bakken.

Kaylan Carrlson, manager of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited's Great Plains Regional Office in Bismarck, said a research team of some 15 recent college graduates from across the country is counting duck pairs this spring and will conduct brood counts later this summer after the eggs hatch.

The project focuses on 62 plots, each four square miles, spread across the study area along with another random sample of basins, Carrlson said. Based on their findings, she said the researchers will develop a computer model of duck pair density and duck abundance.


Carrlson said there are no preconceived notions about what the research will reveal. Ultimately, she said, the goal is to help wildlife managers and energy companies develop best practices to minimize any potential negative impact on waterfowl.

"There's a common misconception that a lot of people go into studies like this thinking there's going to be a very bad effect," Carrlson said. "As scientists, we go into it with a very neutral approach, and we go into it not really knowing what the effect is going to be."

It's intensive work, she said, and the survey crews hope to sample more than 4,000 wetland basins within the study area this summer. DU is receiving funding from the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Central Flyway Council to conduct the study.

Key partners

Carrlson said the project would not be possible without those partners and the cooperation of private landowners. She said Tanner Gue of DU in Bismarck and Garrett Cacciola, the survey's crew leader, spent a month and a half before the fieldwork season contacting more than 700 private landowners for permission to access their property.

"A large portion of North Dakota is privately owned, so this project entailed a huge effort from these great folks to allow us on to their property to do this study, Carrlson said.

"It's been such a great experience thus far not only for the partners, but also just the landowners who are out there and willing to support it, as well."

The research crew is staying at a handful of Fish and Wildlife Service facilities, including Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge north of Stanley, N.D.; the Service also is providing vehicles for the research crew.


Breeding pair surveys will continue until early June, Carrlson said, and the crews will conduct the first brood survey in early July and a later brood survey in August.

She said the brood count portion of the survey is more labor intensive just because of the difficulty in detecting and counting ducklings.

"Those techs are working hard, let me tell you," Carrlson said. "Pair surveys, you survey from dawn to dusk, so you might be working 13-, 14-hour days and driving two hours back to your camper. The brood survey is just as long, so those techs are working hard."

The research now underway is a follow-up to a pilot study DU completed last year, when biologists surveyed more than 2,000 basins on 30 study plots in an area with varied oil and gas development.

Carrlson said it's too soon to draw any conclusions from the pilot study, but the project now underway has funding to continue for the next two to three years.


Delta, NDGF partner on study of nest success in Oil Patch

The Ducks Unlimited study underway in the Oil Patch is just one of the research projects targeting the impact of energy development on ducks.


The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has called on researchers from Delta Waterfowl to look at the energy boom's effect on nesting success. Using a study framework devised by Louisiana State University, Delta will determine any variations in nest success among areas of low-, medium- and high-intensity oil development.

Based on the findings, Delta will provide oil companies with impact-mitigation strategies and help devise new waterfowl management actions in the oil fields.

-- Delta Waterfowl

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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