Pheasants in the North Dakota Oil Patch

Flicka bringing in a pheasant that didn’t get away.

“Those are industrial strength pheasants,” I told Flicka, as a rooster pheasant flushed from the edge of the shelterbelt—the wrong side of the shelterbelt—well screened from my view except for a fleeting glance as it flew off to safety. Another pheasant had given us the slip.

Flicka, my Labrador retriever and always-enthusiastic hunting partner, and I were hunting pheasants on Wildlife Management Areas along the shores of Lakes Sakakawea, the big Missouri River impoundment in western North Dakota. I’ve hunted that area off and on around 30 years, and we’ve been making trips there regularly in recent years so that Kevin, our son who lives in Minot, and I can hunt together.

The area has been undergoing rapid change in the last few years. Some of those changes are natural and others are industrial.

The area is smack dab in the middle of the Bakken Formation oil patch of western North Dakota and eastern Montana, and the pace of development is almost mind-boggling. Almost everywhere you look you can see derricks, indicating where new wells are being drilled, site preparation where wells are going to be drilled, oil wells that are pumping, and occasional flames indicating where natural gas is being flared off. The number of natural gas flares is less than a year or so ago, as the oil companies have built natural gas pipelines to capture the gas and send it to market.

Another indicator of change is the volume of heavy truck traffic, with tanker trucks, heavy equipment movers and gravel hauling trucks fanning out across the countryside. While farming operations continue next to the oil wells it’s easy to see that energy is the driving force in western North Dakota.

Energy creates other impacts. Schools in a couple communities have put up apartments and houses specifically to provide their teachers with subsidized housing. With the influx of oil workers, housing in many small towns is at a premium.

For better or worse, Mother Nature has drastically changed the lakeshore hunting areas. The drought cycle of a few years ago resulted in low lake levels. While that hurt fisheries and boating it also created vast expanses of wildlife habitat as weeds, brush patches and groves of trees took hold, creating a paradise full of white-tailed deer, pheasants and waterfowl.

After just a couple years with heavy runoff the big impoundment is virtually full, as is the Ft. Peck impoundment in Montana, and some pheasant hotspots of a few years ago are now under 40 feet of water. In fact, lake levels increased 13 feet over the course of this past summer, going from 1837 feet above sea level in March to 1850 feet in July. Right now, the Corps of Engineers is dumping water from the reservoir at the rate of 30,000 cubic feet per second to lower lake levels to make room for next year’s runoff. Water is still coming in at the rate of 20,000 cfs, so it takes awhile to reduce the lake level, which stood at 1845 feet on October 31.

On October 31, while other people were getting ready for Halloween, Kevin and I were out walking along the lakeshore into a bitterly cold south wind, watching the surf roll in. Lines of driftwood above the current shoreline mark this year’s high water mark, while offshore, drowned trees are still standing in deep water. On this Halloween, the pheasants played all the tricks and, except for the sandwiches we’d packed for the day, we got none of the treats.

A couple days earlier I’d hunted by myself and collected a three-bird limit in relatively short order. The pheasants seemed to be bunched up in sheltered areas following an early snowstorm that roared through a couple days earlier.

After a couple days of warm sunshine the pheasants, especially those big gaudy roosters, seemed to have scattered and were hard to find. Who knows, maybe some of them strolled over to that new oilrig operating just a few hundred yards from the wildlife management area and hired on as roughnecks.

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