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Prairie Birds Losing Ground To ND Oil Drilling, Study Says

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Many grassland birds are losing habitat to drilling activity in western North Dakota's oil patch and more needs to be done to prevent further displacement, a new federal study says.

"Lot of things go away when birds go away — the whole ecosystem gets topsy-turvy," said Douglas Johnson, one of four federal scientists who authored the study by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The three-year study completed in 2014 and released this week looked at 69 oil well sites and nearby gravel roads in seven of the state's oil-producing counties. Most oil well sites in the study had "numerous tall structures, were surrounded by barbed wire fencing, had brightly burning natural gas flares, generated relatively minor chronic noise, and were visited frequently by large trucks," the study said.

The study found that some grassland birds such as the as the chestnut-collared longspur and the Baird's sparrow avoided those areas by more than a quarter mile. Two species of grassland birds — clay-colored sparrows and brown-headed cowbirds — "were tolerant of oil-related infrastructure," researchers said.

"Some of the birds not deterred by oil development were birds that like to sit on fences," said Johnson, who is based in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Sprague's pipit, which is a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act, showed "reduced density" within about 1,150 feet of some oil wells, the study found.

North Dakota's oil producing region along with those in nearby Montana and Canada is home to "a particularly high density and diversity of grassland bird species that are declining across North America," researchers said.

The frenzy of drilling activity in North Dakota's oil patch over the past decade has resulted in more than 10,000 new oil wells. Up to 55,000 additional wells are forecast in the state over the next three decades, state officials say.

Johnson said the additional wells will exacerbate the problem that already is "very, very concerning."

The study suggests combining numerous wells in a single area and putting them near existing roads to minimize the impact on the birds.

Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the state already requires that to be done to reduce the impact of oil development.

"The development has not been haphazard. It's been very well planned out by the state and industry," said Cutting, whose group represents more than 550 companies. Lessening the footprint of oil wells "maximizes use for agriculture, sportsmen and critters."

North Dakota has not done its own study on the impacts of oil development on grassland birds though studies are underway to determine the impact on other species, including waterfowl, said Sandra Johnson, a conservation biologist with the state Fish and Game Department.

(© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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