Eastern Dakotas Survey Finished - Time To Go Home

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Written by Pam Garrettson
Monday, May 30, 2011

Pam Garrettson.We finished the ground portion of the survey that cuts through Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near the Canadian border last Friday. In fact we stayed there the night before, in refuge housing graciously provided by manager Tom Pabian and by maintenance worker Larry Clowse, who worked hard on repairs, as the housing had been damaged by severe winter weather. The housing consists of former FEMA trailers, left over from the 1997 flooding of Grand Forks, ND. Ironically, the refuge contains the dam that controls the flow of the Souris River, and downstream, residents of Minot were working hard to build sandbag dikes in preparation for additional water releases that would likely be necessary. Already a torrent flowed through the control structure.

We stayed at the refuge because hotels were impossible to find, as they are full of oil, gas and railroad workers. Oil and gas exploration and extraction has grown rapidly in western North Dakota and eastern Montana over the past 5 years, improving the fortunes of once-dying towns, but also overwhelming their ability to deal with the influx. The young seasonal refuge tech we stayed with reported that oil workers were camped in tents, RVs, even shacks that he likened to the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression.

Once we finished the survey, we headed toward our respective homes. I set off for Denver to return the vehicle and there was widespread flooding on the Missouri River, with Bismarck, Mandan, Pierre and Ft. Pierre also in ongoing peril. I had to detour 50 miles in one spot, and nearly everywhere I stopped I heard snippets of anxious conversation. “There could be an uncontrolled release.” “Downtown, it’s mayhem.” “I’m going to help fill sandbags when I get off from work.” Indeed, in Ft. Pierre more than 100 pickups, some bearing utility trailers and pallets, were lined up just for that.

Aside from the human consequences, why would a waterfowl biologist complain about too much water? For breeding ducks, it’s not just a matter of how much water, it’s where and how it is distributed. Smaller potholes are more productive, and provide relatively more areas for ducks to set up territories and breed. Even divers do better on smaller, albeit deep potholes; on really big water, wind-blown waves may wash out their over-water nests. When smaller potholes are drained into larger wetlands, or into ditches and streams, wetland habitat quality and quantity goes down and the threat of flooding downstream goes up. Although this year’s Missouri River flooding is mostly due to record snowpack runoff and precipitation, wetland drainage in the Red River Valley surely contributed to the 1997 Grand Forks flood, and to narrowly avoided floods in Valley City and Fargo earlier this spring.

I stayed over in Valentine, Nebraska, full of earnest young men wearing jeans, starched western shirts, spotless white cowboy hats, but boots that were battered and worn. In town for a high school rodeo championship, they walked about with their competitors’ numbers already pinned on, dressed to impress. Valentine is the gateway to the Nebraska sandhills, a dry, hilly region in the west-central part of the state. Flooding on the Niobrara River was not causing problems; in fact it had raised the water table, according to one local. 125 miles to the south, the Platte River runs west to east, and is a major migration stopover for sandhill cranes….wait a minute. Suddenly it dawned on me; that’s how sandhill cranes got their name! Whoa, that’s embarrassing. Time to go home...