Where have all the godwits gone?

By Taylor Broby

New Town, ND — The godwits no longer nest south of New Town, North Dakota. DRC members, Shelly and Dorothy Ventsch, whose family has farmed around New Town since before 1920, have noticed a marked decline of wildlife since the Bakken oil boom started surrounding their property.

Shelly and Dorothy know the land intimately. As Shelly says, “We know a lot about our fields–where grouse are nesting, where arrowheads can be found–we are connected to this land.”

But the Ventsch sisters no longer feel at home. As Dorothy reports, “Now my life is filled with worries.” And when I asked how they de-stress, she says, “I don’t think we do,” and Shelly agrees: “I used to enjoy being out in nature. Now it is noisy.”

So what’s changed for the Ventsch sisters? Since the mid-2000’s, the oil boom sweeping western North Dakota has come right up to the Ventschs’ front step. Their farm, with coulees, and gullies, plays host and home to wildlife, such as deer, coyote, and fox. But as the Ventsches report, many birds no longer nest or migrate through their farmland.

Shelly has been particularly active in print, writing numerous letters-to-the-editor for newspapers. Both Ventsch sisters have traveled to Bismarck to try to give voice to their concerns. Shelly regularly submits comments to the Industrial Commission–the tribunal composed of the governor, attorney general, and agricultural commissioner– which oversees and monitors the oil boom, and reports that sometimes her comments appear in the minutes and sometimes they do not.

As Dorothy states, “The Industrial Commission has the power over almost everything related to the Bakken oil boom. If there are problems associated with the boom, it’s the Commission’s responsibility, as well as the people who they’ve hired as consultants and workers.”

Both Ventsch sisters agree that most people are ill-informed and are separated for the direct impacts of the oil boom. “When there’s so much propaganda, how can you not buy it?” asks Dorothy.

Largely, the Ventsches worry about the long-term implications of the boom. Two sisters who enjoy farming, planting gardens, and walking no longer feel safe with air and water quality. “This place is not very fun to live in anymore,” says Shelly, “almost everyone complains, but they won’t write letters to their officials or to the newspapers or go to meetings. We need to find a way for people to make their voices heard. Too many people are uninformed, so they vote for familiar names, not realizing incumbents are responsible for this development.”

Dorothy echoes a similar sentiment: “We’re on our own in western North Dakota. The state government has told us it’s our responsibility to oversee development. Why should we come up with solutions to the problems the state government has brought to western North Dakota?” Looking over her farmland Shelly replies, “The state government is not in touch with what’s happening.”

The Ventsch sisters have the longview of the development in western North Dakota, having been shaped and formed by the land. Dorothy worries about prairie fires in a land now filled with saltwater holding tanks, petroleum tanks, and noxious gases. “When there’s a ban on open burning, why can flares continue to burn?” asks Shelly.

The Ventsch sisters lament the loss of wildlife and the quiet that they knew for decades. “Now my life is filled with worries,” says Dorothy. “We enjoyed our lives. If I can try not to think about this, maybe I could be happy,” joins Shelly.

With all this stress and worry, why don’t the Ventsches leave? “I don’t want to give up.  If I go, I’m failing and abandoning the wildlife,” says Shelly. And Dorothy firmly states that agriculture is a way of life in western North Dakota.

The toll of the boom is apparent when driving to the Ventschs’ farm. On the entry road is a sign that says, “No Oil Traffic.” When I first met Dorothy she said, “We’re not comfortable here. This is not home,” with a quick reply from Shelly: “I’m homesick living in my own home.”

But the Ventsches continue writing letters, sending comments, testifying, and talking with neighbors about the Bakken oil boom. As Dorothy says, “If this was a movie, we’re at the point where we should be winning.” But so far the Ventsches have felt like North Dakota has taken a step backward. “Many people tell us we’re ‘against progress,’” says Dorothy. “Progress is improving the quality of life for everyone, not just one group. We used to have good mail service, our radio reception is now spotty; we had a paved road before the boom and for a while, it was back to a bad gravel road; it takes longer to get to town. We have regressed.”

Before I left the Ventsches, I asked about the godwits and their hopeful return. Shelly looked out the window, “If it’s not safe for the godwits to live here, I’m not sure it’s safe for me either.”



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