Where Will the Prairie Chickens Dance?

Oil operations near Stenslie home, May 2012, photo by Terry Evans.

Oil operations near Stenslie home, May 2012, photo by Terry Evans.

I’m eavesdropping this morning on a Dakota Resource Council conference call – with permission. Members of the DRC oil and gas task force are discussing their agenda for the coming weeks. Ten people are on the line, sharing information and deciding who will testify about pending legislation in committee hearings in Bismarck. DRC Director Don Morrison and organizer Sean Arithson preside in a low-key way.

The number of oil wells in northwestern North Dakota has risen from 5,300 to a little over 8,500 since Terry and I began our explorations almost two years ago. Discontent is spreading as are efforts to prevent more damage to land and people.

“It’s painful that farmer and rancher livelihoods are being trampled in the rush to develop oil as fast as possible, when it could be done in a very different way,” Don Morrison said in an interview a few days before the call. “Coal mining in this state was developed responsibly in the 1970s, largely because of Governor Arthur Link. If only we had such leaders now.”

A 1973 speech by Governor Link is almost a credo for those trying to limit damage from the oil industry:


Listening on the telephone, I learn a little about the challenge of political organizing in North Dakota. The task force members are mostly farmers and ranchers who, with a few exceptions, live far apart. Now, in early spring, snow and fog are making it hard to get to anywhere, let alone to Bismarck, the state capital.

Daryl Peterson, who farms wheat, barley, beans, and sunflowers north of Minot, has lost several acres to repeated salt water leaks from a disposal well on his property. He has incurred high costs for soil testing and legal fees and is considering further legal action to force proper reclamation of his land. He works closely with the DRC and also the Northwest Landowners Association, on whose board he serves. The NWLA represents the interests of ranchers and farmers affected by the oil boom.

Greg Tank, who lives near Keene, no longer runs cattle on his ranch because of oil-related danger to his animals, especially from truck traffic. He used to herd his cows from one pasture to another along a nearby road which had little traffic until about three years ago. (Fences prevented herding overland.) Last year, during a period of several months, he counted more than 3,000 large trucks on that road every day – most of them servicing wells or related oil facilities. For that reason and others, he finds it too dangerous to raise cattle now.

In a lull in the conference call, he says softly, “We have so much damage out here.”

DRC organizer Sean Arithson runs through bills pending in the legislature and asks who can travel to Bismarck to testify in committee hearings. One bill, which is opposed by the task force, would make it easier for oil, pipeline, and electric companies to take land by eminent domain. Other legislation, endorsed by the DRC, would have mandated that oil facilities be placed farther than 500 feet from a dwelling, but that part of the bill had just been removed by the House. Several of the people on the telephone offer to go to Bismarck to testify in favor of an amendment that would get language back into the bill requiring a set-back of at least 1,000 feet. To supplement its testimony, the DRC will also present legislators with a petition signed by hundreds of people, which reads, “500 feet is not enough to protect residents from flares, grass fires, explosions, toxic smells and the safety and health hazards from increased traffic.”

Don Morrison, Director, Dakota Resource Council, May 2012, photo by Terry Evans.

Don Morrison, Director, Dakota Resource Council, May 2012, photo by Terry Evans.


Terry and I first learned about the DRC’s organizing efforts a year ago at a meeting in the home of Norma and Jim Stenslie on Lake Sakakawea near New Town. Jim, who is 77, served as pastor of several northwestern North Dakota parishes of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and is now retired. He and Norma live in a year-around cabin just down the hill from nine oil wells then in various stages of construction and eight gravel pits (gravel is used for oil pads and other industry purposes). Before the meeting, Terry and I stood with Jim on his front porch looking at the lake through pines, cottonwoods, and lilacs in bloom. Oil operations are ruining their previously quiet lives, he said.

Don Morrison opened the meeting by asking the 11 people in the living room to introduce themselves. Arthur Langved spoke first. He told the group he was 80 years old and had been part of the crew on the Clarence Iverson well near Tioga, where North Dakota’s first oil was struck in 1951. He expressed several concerns about the Bakken boom, including what he called “corruption” in state government.
Dorothy Ventsch said that she and her sister Shelly came “because we have to make our opinions known or lose everything we value.”

Glenna Meiers, a neighbor of the Stenslies, said, “Because we’re so close to oil operations, the sounds and smells here – even what we see – have changed. We no longer see the northern lights.”

Brenda and Richard Jorgenson spoke, as did Steve and Scott Davis. Don Morrison praised the effective organizing of the Davises and others in White Earth who were struggling to block construction of a waste disposal site near the Davises’ ranch.

“There have been successful actions to fight back,” Morrison said. “We must figure out where change can happen.”

Rev. Jim Stenslie, member Dakota Resource Council, May 2012, photo by Terry Evans.

Rev. Jim Stenslie, member Dakota Resource Council, May 2012, photo by Terry Evans.

Later on that same trip in May last year, we met with a small group of people at the home of Theodora Bird Bear near Mandaree on the Ft. Berthold Reservation. To get there, we drove through miles of native prairie interrupted by large oil pads. Many more will be built in the years ahead. Theodora began documenting oil-related damage on the reservation in 2007, mostly for the New Town News. She carries a digital camera with her at all times. “They dismiss what we say if there’s no documentation,” she explained. Among other incidents, she has documented leaks of petroleum and other fluids from trucks, a prairie fire caused by a gas flare two miles from her home, and a well spewing yellowish fluid into the air near Mandaree for more than 14 hours.

Her neighbor, Avalon Hale, who has oil wells on and near her property, said she’d been looking for the wild prairie chickens that used to mate every spring near her home. Their courting ritual is elaborate, involving strutting and a showy snapping of tails. An oil well now dominates those mating grounds.

“Where will the prairie chickens dance?” Avalon asked. No one answered.

Theodora Bird Bear, Ft. Berthold Reservation, May 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Theodora Bird Bear, Ft. Berthold Reservation, May 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.


April 16, 2013
In recent months, those working to stop destruction of lands and livelihoods in the Williston Basin have had some successes.

On March 18, because of rising opposition on the Ft. Berthold Reservation, construction of an oil waste landfill in White Shield was shut down several weeks after the owners had begun moving dirt without getting all the required permits. On the 19th, 200 tribal members gathered in a White Shield community center to vigorously oppose allowing a landfill on property that had been a refuge for wildlife.

“People were unanimous in opposing the site,” Theodora Bird Bear wrote in an e-mail. She is now documenting these events and others on her Facebook page, “This is Mandaree,” and also helping organize a new statewide organization, the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, which will gather data and lobby for stronger environmental enforcement throughout the oil patch.

On March 20th, the North Dakota House of Representatives rejected a proposed cut in the oil extraction tax, a bill vigorously promoted by the oil industry, and on the 22nd, a company which had applied to drill next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park pulled its permit application after growing opposition around the state.

But last week, the DRC-backed effort to move oil wells farther than 500 feet from homes did not make it out of the Senate committee.
* * *

We end our blog as we began it two months ago with lines from Thomas McGrath’s epic poem about North Dakota, Letter to an Imaginary Friend.


McGrath writes about the history of his home state as a stage on which humans – in our goodness and greed – enact dramas universal in their implications. He explores the breaking of the prairie, the near demise of buffalo, the wars against Native Americans, the dust bowl, and repeated booms and busts, including the Great Depression, highlighting the often tragic fallibility of humankind. He died in 1990, but the worldwide implications of the Bakken oil boom wouldn’t surprise him if he were still around.

As Lynn Helms said in our interview, the new fracking methods developed to extract Bakken oil are a world “game-changer.” Shale oil in other places is now more likely to be exploited, which could be dangerous, because reputable scientists warn that no more than one-third of the earth’s remaining fossil fuels should be used by 2050 to avoid global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s the limit beyond which climate change will become catastrophic, many scientists believe.

This February 18 letter to the editor of the Williston Herald from Shelly Ventsch, one of two sisters at the DRC meeting near New Town last year, reads to us as a universal cry from the heart. We close our blog here:

Much of what I cherished is gone or disappearing….

I am trying to navigate farm equipment through a string of crazy drivers of semi’s raising clouds of dust, stunting my crops, lowering my yields. I am picking up oil-soaked ducks…

I am searching for the sight of the wildlife which is no longer there.

I realize everybody is not to blame for this, but the general feeling is we have been forced to sacrifice our way of life to accommodate the nation’s unemployed and to feed the state’s insatiable appetite for money.

I do not expect understanding, nor am I looking for sympathy. I just want the life I had already made for myself.

Looking back, south of Stanley, October 2011, photo by Terry Evans.

Looking back, south of Stanley, October 2011, photo by Terry Evans.

This is the last entry of the Farnsworth/Evans blog. From June 7, 2013, to January 2014, Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History will feature the exhibition, “Fractured: North Dakota’s Oil Boom, by Terry Evans and Elizabeth Farnsworth.” The exhibition then travels to the North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks.

The Center for Art + Environment will open an exhibition of their oil boom work and project archive in June 2014 as part of the Nevada Museum of Art’s triennial Art + Environment conference held that fall.