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Contaminants in the environment can play a role in the decline of fish and wildlife species, keeping them at suppressed levels by causing increased mortality or chronic effects such as impaired health or reproduction. The purposes of the contaminants program in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are to investigate the effects of contaminants on the environment and, when appropriate, mitigate the adverse impacts. The primary contaminant concerns in South Dakota relate to agriculture and mining. Secondary concerns relate to municipal/industrial sites, oil extraction, lead shot poisoning, and accidental spills. Trace elements such as selenium, arsenic, and mercury; pesticides; and petroleum hydrocarbons are some of the contaminants causing these concerns.

Prevention is an important aspect of the contaminants program in South Dakota. If a potential problem can be avoided, it benefits everyone. Permit review and coordination with other agencies can often be helpful in identifying potential concerns. The Contaminant Assessment Process (CAP) is a cooperative effort between U.S. Geological Survey and the Service to develop a database for Service lands throughout the U.S., including South Dakota.

Picture of a crop duster planeAgriculture: Contaminant concerns regarding agriculture can be a result of 1) naturally occurring trace elements leached from the soil or 2) pesticide applications. In South Dakota, selenium is the trace element most likely to cause concerns and is most commonly derived from the Pierre Shale formation which underlies soils in much of the western portion of the State. Selenium can be leached from the soil by rainfall or irrigation. It can accumulate in the water, bottom sediment, plants, and animals to levels which can cause adverse impacts, particularly to aquatic bird species. There is a long history of selenium impacts in South Dakota, not only to fish and wildlife, but also to livestock and humans. The Department of Interior's (DOI) National Irrigation Water Quality Program is a cooperative effort between U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Service to investigate the extent of irrigation induced impacts to fish and wildlife resources. Two reconnaissance investigations have been conducted in South Dakota at: Angostura Reclamation Unit in Custer and Fall River Counties in 1990 and Belle Fourche Reclamation Project in Butte County in 1991. In 1996 and 1997, under the same program, data was collected on lands irrigated with non-DOI water at Lake Andes, Pocasse, Shadehill, Rapid Valley, Redwater, Belle Fourche River, Cheyenne River, and James River.

Picture of a Bald Eagle that died from phorate poisoningPesticide usage can also result in impacts to fish and wildlife. Some pesticides are very selective for a specific target pest, relatively non-toxic, or have little potential to enter the environment. However, other pesticides have the potential to cause harm to non-target resources. These impacts are often due to the ingestion of pesticide, either directly or through the consumption of food items containing toxic concentrations of a pesticide. In South Dakota for example, phorate, an organophosphorus insecticide, applied in the fall of 1988 while planting winter wheat, caused the death of feeding geese the next spring. Bald eagles subsequently fed on the geese and also died. A current pesticide issue in South Dakota is DRC-1339. This avicide is being studied as a potential control for blackbirds in sunflower fields. Service concerns regarding DRC-1339 focus on the impacts to non-target species and nearby Service lands.

The Ecological Services Office also reviews and comments on Emergency Exemption Requests for pesticide applications each Spring.

Picture of an abandoned mine site in the Black HillsMining: There have been several gold mining operations in the northern Black Hills. Mining has occurred in this region for more than 100 years. Problems can arise from either tailings discharged into streams in the past that continue to leach hazardous substances into the water, or from treated mine effluent currently being discharged into streams. Concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, cyanide, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, silver, and zinc have exceeded concentrations documented as hazardous to fish and wildlife. All of these constituents, with the exception of cyanide, are naturally occurring in the rock being mined. Cyanide is added as part of the gold recovery process. In the past, additional mercury was also added as part of the gold recovery process. Acute effects, resulting in wildlife mortality, are fairly well documented. Bird deaths have occurred due to cyanide poisoning and fish kills have occurred from accidental releases of cyanide and acid mine drainage.

Mine Seepage
In addition to acute effects, there is also the potential for longer-term chronic effects. Chronic impacts are likely to occur off-site and possibly at considerable distance from a mine. These impacts are due to elevated concentrations of toxic constituents which are slowly leached from tailings into the water and sediment. The Service completed a Natural Resource Damage Assessment related to impacts from mine tailings. The Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Corps of Engineers, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and the State of South Dakota were participating Trustees. The area of concern extends from Whitewood Creek in the northern Black Hills to the Cheyenne River Arm of Lake Oahe. The Trustees have reached a settlement with the potentially responsible party and have drafted a restoration plan to implement the terms of the settlement.  A Notice of Availability regarding the plan and opportunity for comment has been posted in local papers statewide.

The Service is currently participating in ecological risk assessment activities and is a member of a Biological Technical Assistance Group (BTAG) associated with mining impacts in the northern Black Hills.  Technical assistance is being provided to the Environmental Protection Agency at Superfund sites where potential risks to fish and wildlife exist.

Municipal/Industrial sites: South Dakota is relatively clean regarding contamination from municipal and industrial sites when compared to other, more urban states. However, there are some activities within this category such as military installations which frequently have contaminant issues. For example, the Ellsworth Air Force Base in western South Dakota was placed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Priorities List due to potential contaminant sources such as landfills, low level radioactive waste, and explosive ordnance disposal. The Black Hills Army Ordnance Depot is an inactive installation in the southwestern portion of the state which was used for disposal of chemical and conventional weapons. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of cleanup at the depot.

The Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern (DM&E) Roundhouse site is a locomotive maintenance facility in Huron, South Dakota. Wastewater from the facility containing petroleum hydrocarbons, volatile organics, and heavy metals were conveyed to ponds and subsequently discharged into a creek which in turn flowed into the James River. In the early 90's approximately 100 dead birds were found in and near the ponds by federal and state employees. As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has worked with DM&E; to drain the ponds and clean up the site.

picture of birds that died in oil pitsOil extraction: Oil extraction sites are scattered throughout Fall River and Harding Counties in western South Dakota. Oil, grease, and other chemical wastes related to well drilling were stored in pits. In arid areas such as western South Dakota these pits become an attractive nuisance to wildlife, particularly birds. Wildlife mortality can occur from exposure to these chemical wastes. As a result of studies done by the Service in South Dakota and other western states, many oil companies have begun storing waste liquids in tanks or netting the pits. Aerial surveys of pits in South Dakota were conducted in 1999.

Lead shot poisoning: Lead poisoning can be a significant cause of mortality in waterfowl. Regulations for the use of nontoxic shot were instituted nationwide in 1991. However, waterfowl can still be exposed through the ingestion of old lead shot from wetlands and other forage areas. Recent findings indicate that exposure to lead shot may still be occurring in trumpeter swans and Canada geese at LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern South Dakota. A study is underway to evaluate the extent of contamination in geese and swans in the vicinity of LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge.

Accidental spills: Accidental spills of various materials sometimes occur at different locations throughout South Dakota. The Service is notified of these spills by both state and federal agencies. An incident report is received for each spill. The Service reviews these reports, calls any appropriate contacts, and responds as needed. Fortunately, due to an absence of large urban areas and some isolation from major transportation corridors, South Dakota experiences fewer and less severe spills than many other states. In recent years, 6-12 spills have been reported annually.

Permit review and coordination with other agencies: The South Dakota Ecological Services Office reviews and comments on approximately 25 landfill and wastewater treatment facilities each year. Approximately 75 National Pollution Discharge Elimination System sites are also reviewed yearly. Once every three years, the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources is required by state and federal law to review and update the surface water quality standard regulations. The South Dakota Ecological Services Office has participated in this review process, providing comments and initiating field work. The most recent triennial review was initiated in 1996.

Contaminant Assessment Process: The Contaminant Assessment Process (CAP) is a cooperative effort between the U.S. Geological Survey and the Service. CAP is developing a database for Service lands throughout the U.S., including South Dakota. In 1996, databases were completed for Lake Andes, Sand Lake, and LaCreek National Wildlife Refuges.  In 1997, databases were completed for Waubay, Karl Mundt, and Bear Butte refuges.  Databases have subsequently been completed for Huron and Waubay Wetland Management District.

National Amphibian Malformation Monitoring on National Wildlife Refuges: The South Dakota Ecological Services Field Office is participating in a nationwide effort to conduct amphibian surveys on National Wildlife Refuges.  Refuges in South Dakota included in survey efforts are Lake Andes, Sand Lake and Waubay.  The purposes of the surveys are: 1) to determine if malformed frogs occur on Service lands; and 2) to develop a database regarding distribution of this phenomenon.  For more information on frog malformations visit

For further information on South Dakota contaminants issues, contact Matt Schwarz at 605-224-8693 ext. 232.


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Last updated: September 9, 2013

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