North Dakota Field Office
Mountain-Prairie Region
August 2007
News Releases

August 29, 2007


Oil well operators in northwestern North Dakota received mostly good grades in recent inspections by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency checked oil well sites in Bottineau, Renville, Ward, Mountrail, Burke, and Williams counties on August 24-25 to see if operators are complying with provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits “take” of migratory birds except as permitted by regulation.  The birds mistake pooled oil for water and are also attracted by the many trapped insects.  This is almost always fatal, as oil-soaked feathers prevent birds from flying.

“Most operators have taken preventative measures to avoid placing birds and other wildlife at risk,” noted Service biologist Kevin Johnson. “However,” he added, “we collected dead birds at several sites not using those measures.”

“We found trapped birds in reserve pits at active drilling sites, within drip barrels under storage tank spigots, in oil pooled in flare pits and in oil spilled on the ground,” said Johnson. “We collected swallows, flycatchers, gadwalls, blue-winged teal and gulls.”

The Service estimates annual losses of 500,000 to 1-million migratory birds to oil pits in the United States. “That’s down significantly from the estimated 2-million in annual losses just 10 years ago,” Johnson pointed out. “The decline is due to many oil operators taking measures to prevent wildlife mortality in oil pits.”

Most well operators are doing their part to protect birds, but some need reminders.

“The vast majority of the drip barrels are covered, most sites have anti-perching devices on their heater-treaters, and some of the companies are starting to net their reserve pits,” related Johnson. “They’ve done some good things when asked,” he added. “I believe compliance in North Dakota is much better than in other states.”

Some sites didn’t do as well. “We inspected one site that had 11 birds in oil contained in the flare pit,” said Johnson.

He pointed out that compliance is easy and inexpensive for well operators. “It’s a simple fix to put lids or screens on the drip barrels, install screening over heater-treater stacks, place netting over reserve pits and expeditiously clean up spilled oil,” he noted.

“At sites that were clean and did not have exposed oil, or had exclusion devices, we didn’t find bird mortalities, but at sites with exposed oil, we did,” added Johnson.

He said the inspections covered between one-third and one-half of the state’s oil patch.

Under provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, these bird mortalities are a criminal offense.  The Service’s Office of Law Enforcement carries out its mission to protect birds through investigations and enforcement, as well as by fostering relationships with individuals, companies and industries that have taken effective steps to minimize their impacts on migratory birds, and by encouraging others to enact such programs.  The Office says it is not possible to absolve individuals, companies or agencies from liability even if they implement these or other conservation measures.  However, the Office focuses its resources on investigating and prosecuting individuals and companies that take migratory birds without regard for their actions or without following an agreement such as this to avoid take.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants for the continuing benefit of the American people.  The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts.

For more information on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, visit our home page at


Last updated: February 19, 2013