North Dakota evokes classic American imagery: big blue skies, open prairies, miles of rugged Badlands landscape, bison roaming in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The images are straight out of Remington, cowboy movies and the nostalgic pull of the legendary American west.
This is the North Dakota of our imagination, and a land worth preserving.
But the skies aren’t always blue and the threats to this land are real. In a state once dominated by agriculture, North Dakota’s biggest crop today is harvested hydraulically on small pads often next to grain or canola fields, sometimes within the boundary of a National Wildlife Refuge. Open flames dot the blue horizon and truckers haul fracking waste down dusty highways like Mad Max going 70 MPH.
Such was the tug and pull our group of travelers encountered last July in the northern-most outpost of the U.S. plains. In the company of New Jersey Audubon trip leaders leaders Scott Barnes and Linda Mack, we reveled in the beauty of true wilderness, with accompanying worry about the encroachments hemming it in.
Our journey began in the capitol city of Bismarck, a gruff, dusty old railroad town on the banks of the Missouri River. From there we journeyed mostly north, covering vast stretches of the prairie pothole region, miles of lowing grasses pockmarked with shallow wetlands teeming with Snow Geese, Blue-Winged Teal, Redheads, Ruddy Ducks and five species of grebes. In wet years, 70 percent or more of the continent’s duck production originates in the prairie pothole region, with several million ducks and geese passing through the region every spring. Some call it the duck factory of North America.
We worked our way through the Little Missouri National Grasslands, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the Lake Ilo, Lostwood and J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuges, almost to the Canadian border and back. Out of 154 birds, our last was a Red-necked Phalarope spotted at the Minot Sewage Lagoons, a place where no one but birders have reason to go.
Of the varied landscapes, what lingers in my memory are the prairie grasses rippling green, brown, yellow and purple. You could hear the wind move through them, feeling a little like a Wyeth or Whitman as you tried to conjure an image or a word. The grasses were alive with birds — Grasshopper, Vesper, Nelson’s, Baird’s, LaConte’s and other sparrows, Lark Buntings and musical, elusive Chestnut-Collared Longspurs. Finding these grass-loving birds was like looking for mice: you came to appreciate the eyes of the Swainson’s Hawks and Northern Harriers who hunt this area every day
The grassland has a dry fragrance like no other smell, maybe some ancient olfactory sensation reminding us that we were once s grassland species like sparrows are today. Every now and again you would see an old busted up wagon and your mind would wander, wondering what it was like to cross this mysterious open land in the pioneer days.
We didn’t run into a lot of people, and when we did, we were reminded that birders frim the east were something of a rarity out there. A farmer eyed us with suspicion when we were birding on a dirt road near his land. Restaurant servers would give us that “Really?” expression when we told them what we were up to. One day we were looking for Burrowing Owls in an open field when a woman from the adjacent ranch house came out to ascertain who we were and what we were doing. We soon got into a chat with the whole family and we talked about the problems of raising horses in fields rutted with Prairie Dog holes. These folks had never met anyone who would travel all the way to North Dakota to stare into a field with binoculars and spotting scopes, but as we left, we kind of felt like we had somehow bridged a cultural divide. They pointed out some scenic routes for us; we urged them so leave some of those holes alone so the Prairie Dogs and Burrowing Owls could share. As we parted, one of the kids gave us a look at a prized toad he had caught earlier in the day.
Months later I am still I am trying to shake the North Dakota dust from my hair and my boots. But it is no good. no good. It is in me now, and the images good and bad burn like flares in my imagination.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of New Jersey Audubon Magazine.