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Patrols aim to reduce grassland destruction

BISMARCK -- North Dakota's western grasslands are becoming a national trash-lands. Rabble-rousers are out there with guns, blasting at everything in sight and tearing up fragile terrain with jacked-up trucks and four-wheelers. There is plenty of ...

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Blatant littering, including a pile of discarded furniture in a grazing pasture, has local ranchers concerned with the misuse of the Little Missouri National Grasslands in North Dakota.

BISMARCK - North Dakota’s western grasslands are becoming a national trash-lands.

Rabble-rousers are out there with guns, blasting at everything in sight and tearing up fragile terrain with jacked-up trucks and four-wheelers.

There is plenty of evidence of actual and aesthetic damage caused by fire, erosion, rampant littering and abandoned vehicles. Ranchers, who use the grasslands for grazing and have protected them for decades, say they have had enough.

“It’s been escalating in the last few years and shows no signs of letting up,” said Keith Winter, who ranches in the far western edge of the Little Missouri National Grasslands almost to Montana. “Sometimes when they’re out there on the weekends, it sounds like a shooting gallery.”

Winter, who is head of the McKenzie County Grazing Association, has passed along his own and other ranchers’ concerns to the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the 1 million-acre spread of public lands through the western counties.

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Forest Service supervisor Dennis Neitzke said it’s been obvious for some time that a response - one involving more than the agency’s part-time officer - was needed. While the McKenzie County Sheriff’s department was cooperative, it was overwhelmed with its own caseload.

“We had to take it to the next level,” he said.

In mid-July, a detail of three enforcement agents were assigned to the McKenzie District of the grasslands, a sprawling expanse of about 500,000 acres that covers McKenzie County - the largest county in North Dakota - and borders Montana.

Within weeks of hitting the ground, the agents had made more than 200 contacts, written three dozen warnings and issued 15 violations, federal misdemeanors that could go to federal court.

Two cases, still under investigation, are so severe the violators could be assessed the cost of reclaiming the ruined ground.

Nate Card, patrol captain for the Forest Service region, said the cases could reach a felony status if damage to federal property exceeds $1,000.

Neitzke said the agents’ primary job is education.

“We have a lot of people in the area directing people out to the grasslands telling them they can do anything out there,” he said. “We’re learning as we go, but it is getting more serious.”

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‘A few bad apples’

The agents are focusing on three problem areas. Those are pasture one at the far western edge, pasture 10 bordering the north side of Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit and the Burnt Hills Overlook recreation area north of Watford City near Lake Sakakawea.

Eldean Flynn’s ranch is at the western edge, and he, like Winter, has a grazing permit in pasture 10, bordering Montana.

Though he’s a tough hand and an experienced cowman, Flynn does not confront troublemakers when he sees and hears grassland disturbances.

“Those guys have guns. I just get out of their way,” he said. “If I hear gunshots, I’m careful where I go.”

He’s ranched there his whole life and says he has never, until the Bakken boom, seen this kind of use and misuse of the grasslands.

The grasslands are open to public recreation, part of the Forest Service’s multiple-use strategy, which also includes grazing, mineral development, hunting and recreation. Target shooting is allowed, though not the littering and destruction that’s going along with it, and off-road motorized travel is prohibited.

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“A lot of people like to go picnicking out here, or whatever, and I’m all for it. We don’t like the destruction. I’m for oil development and for the 98 percent of the guys that are good guys, but all it takes is a few bad apples,” Flynn said.

 

Destruction

He and Winter drive out to one of those popular picnic areas not far from Flynn’s headquarters, which back up to the Yellowstone River on the west.

There, in a pretty draw across a small creek, is an abandoned motor home, keys still in the ignition. The rig has been blasted apart by gunfire and broken glass and shards of metal litter the grass around it.

Not far away is a shot-up electric junction box, where someone recently fired a rifle into a transformer and sparked off a grass fire. Ranchers responded and had the fire out by the time the volunteer fire department arrived. It was the third time the transformer had been destroyed by gunfire, the men said.

Flynn’s had valuable livestock shot and killed and so has a neighbor.

“You get back there a mile or so, and nobody knows you’re there,” he said.

Winter and Flynn say they’re glad the Forest Service is bringing in the extra officers.

Even by the agency’s admission, it may be late in the game, but better late than never, Neitzke says.

Winter says he wants to see violators get tickets and fines and, hopefully, the word will get around.

In pasture one, about 50 miles east as the crow flies from Flynn and Winter, another rancher says the agents’ work does seem to be helping.

Joel Grieger’s headquarters are near the North Unit and he grazes in pasture 10, immediately adjacent to Highway 85 south of Watford City.

It’s easy to get into the grasslands from there and that ease has opened a window of opportunity to troublemakers.

“Damage is pretty widespread out there because of the location,” said Grieger, adding that he respects the grasslands because the grazing he’s allowed supports his ranch. “You treat it as your own, that’s why it hurts to see the damage out there.”

Trails that were useable are too “wallowed out” as he describes, to even drive anymore.

Criss-cross tracks up and down buttes and rugged hills turn into small gullies and erode into deep scars.

He’s found garbage, beer cans, shotgun shells, mattresses and gates intentionally left open.

Someone abandoned a pickup, and then someone else planted it with tannerite, fired a rifle into the explosive substance and sat back and enjoyed the big boom, flying debris and fire.

In fact, Grieger said, the damage to the land is severe enough to be visible on Google Earth maps.

“You can see it now,” said Grieger, who once once tried to get a couple of dirt bikers to stop.

“They just blew by me like this,” he said, leaning back in his chair with both middle fingers raised in the air. “One guy had eight four-wheelers on a trailer and all I can do is ask (to stay on established roads). I pick and choose who I talk to,” he said. “I haven’t carried a gun. I’m afraid of what could happen; it could escalate.”

 

Slowing it down

Grieger said the damage had been steadily worsening, but he thinks it’s slowing down, possibly because oil development has dropped sharply since winter and partly because of the agents patrolling the land.

“The patrol gives a guy a little optimism, but I wish they would have been here three years ago,” he said.

Winter said the grazing association doesn’t have funds for law enforcement and nor is that the association’s appropriate mission.

“We’re the eyes and ears out here, and we report these things. We’re not law enforcement,” Winter said.

While the agents will stay on the special detail for awhile longer, Neitzke said he isn’t certain how long that will be. It’s all about funding.

Special details could be scheduled when hunting seasons start later in the fall or possibly next spring.

“We’ll have to see how it goes,” he said.

Grieger said he’d like the Forest Service to put up more signs and at least make their local law enforcement officer full time instead of part-time.

The lack of respect for the grasslands, where grass is the most important and most delicate commodity in that semi-arid environment, makes him both angry and sad.

“It just bugs me to see what’s happened to it. Once the topsoil gets ripped up and torn off, it’ll never be the same again,” he said.

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