WILLISTON, N.D. – Jacki Schilke likes to say her black angus cattle live in harmony with the cats and dogs on her rural Williston ranch.
But recently, Schilke’s ranch has not been in harmony with oil development expanding around her 160 acres.
Five cows, one bull, two dogs and as many as two dozen farm cats have died in the past two years, and Schilke worries the dozens of oil wells within three miles of her ranch could be to blame.
Word of the health problems at Schilke’s ranch has gotten the attention of environmentalists as well as other ranchers trying to co-exist in western North Dakota’s new landscape, but State Veterinarian Susan Keller and other cattle producers say they’re not aware of oilfield-related health problems in cattle, other than effects of dust from increased truck traffic.
Kristi Pennington, a veterinarian from New Town, said she’s dealt with four to six cases in the past five years related to oilfield chemical exposure. The primary concern is accidental spills or leaks of oil or other chemicals that cattle might eat drink or breathe, she said.
“That’s always a risk when the cattle are right next to oil development,” she said.
Pennington also has investigated several animal deaths that were suspected to be linked to oil and gas but were determined to be from natural causes.
“Cattle die from natural causes all the time,” Pennington said. “It’s an inate, knee-jerk reaction to blame the oilfield for all of our problems.”
‘My bread and butter’
Schilke says she didn’t start out looking to point fingers at the oil industry. The 54-year-old spent seven years working in exploratory drilling in the 1980s, and her husband, Steve, currently works in the oil industry.
“I have never been against the oilfield,” Schilke said. “It was my bread and butter.”
But as oil activity increased around the home they’ve lived in since 2007, Schilke and her husband began having their own health problems and noticing the decline of their animals’ health.
Four cattle that lost the ends of their tails before they either died or were shot by her husband to end their suffering.
“It’s the most horrible thing to watch in your life,” Schilke said. “You beat your brain trying to figure it out. It’s devastating.”
A fifth cow that lost its tail eventually regained its health.
Schilke said she knows of others in the area who have had similar issues with cattle, but they’re afraid to speak up, either because they don’t want to damage the reputation of their ranch or because a family member works in the oil industry.
“People are afraid to say anything because it hits the pocketbook,” Schilke said.
Veterinarians from Western Veterinary Clinic in Williston, where Schilke has had her animals treated, could not be reached for comment for this story.
Pennington said she has not encountered cases of cows losing their tails in the New Town area, and she hasn’t heard about cases from colleagues in other areas.
Veterinarians said possible reasons for cows losing their tails include injuries, weather conditions and problems with feed.
Looking outside for help
Keller said she offered to assist Schilke last year with testing but didn’t receive a response.
“If we’ve got something like that going on … for the sake of the neighbors, I’d really like to know if there are some legitimate contamination issues,” said Keller, adding that the offer still stands.
Schilke said she doesn’t recall hearing from Keller or anyone from the state veterinarian’s office.
But she added that she would not consider working with the state veterinarian’s office or a similar office from an oil-producing state because she doesn’t believe she’d get objective information.
Instead, Schilke says she has worked with an independent environmental consultant from Texas and veterinarians at Cornell University and Iowa State University. Autopsies of two cats that became ill and died ruled one cat died of asphyxiation and the second died of chemical phenomia, Schilke said.
Schilke said she attempted to have autopsies performed on her cattle, but local veterinarians didn’t have time to promptly collect the necessary samples. Schilke said she has had hair and blood testing on her cattle.
However, she declined to provide a copy of the test results, autopsy reports or veterinary records because she has been advised by an attorney not to share that information because it could be important to a future legal case.
The North Dakota Department of Health, the Oil and Gas Division of the Department of Mineral Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency have investigated Schilke’s concerns and continue to do more testing.
“We’re having a hard time connecting the issues she’s having with her livestock with any environmental problem,” said Kris Roberts, environmental geologist with the Department of Health’s Division of Water Quality. “That’s not to say there isn’t one, we just haven’t been able to find it.”
Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said oil development is closely regulated and companies are striving to minimize the environmental footprint.
“There’s never been any evidence of any of the concerns that she has alleged,” Ness said.
Schilke and her husband no longer eat their own beef and they only sell calves that can be raised in another environment before they are butchered.
“If I won’t eat it myself, I’m not going to give it to somebody else,” Schilke said.
The couple has been trying to move to Montana for two years, but is having difficulty selling their property.
Dealing with development
Dan Kalil, chairman of the Williams County Commission who has a pasture near Schilke’s, said the primary concerns he has and what he hears from others are noise and dust from oil development. Kalil said he attributes one calf’s death to dust pneumonia, but he has not had animals with health issues similar to what Schilke experienced.
Jason Leiseth, who ranches north of Arnegard, said he was alarmed to read about Schilke’s situation, which has appeared in national and international media stories.
“They obviously have some pretty serious problems,” said Leiseth, who serves on the board of directors for the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association. “I would hope somebody would get to the bottom to what is actually causing it.”
Leiseth, who has numerous oil wells on or near his ranch, said he has not seen any similar problems with his cattle. He has lost some cattle due to illnesses related to the dust caused by intense truck traffic on gravel roads.
“We’re just really relying on our state agencies. They’re telling us it’s safe,” Leiseth said. “Until something is proven differently, I guess that’s what we’re going to continue to believe.”
Winton Wold, who ranches north of Watford City, also says dust is his primary concern about oil development.
“We’re doctoring cattle that we probably normally wouldn’t have to,” said Wold, also on the board for the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association.
Wold has not heard of any cases of cows missing their tails.
Derrick Braaten, a Bismarck attorney who has worked with Schilke and handles other oil-related cases, said he’s heard from ranchers in oil country who have had cows die near oil wells, but he’s not aware of autopsies that were done on those cows.
“I’ve heard plenty of stories of cattle getting sick, dying around wells,” Braaten said. “But there’s a difference between all the stories I hear and getting scientists out in time to prove one of these cases.”
Veterinary toxicologist Michelle Mostrom of North Dakota State University, who has experience working with cattle affected by oil and gas development from working in Alberta for 10 years, said it’s possible for cattle producers and the oil industry to coexist.
“But it has to be done in such a way that you minimize the impact on each other,” said Mostrom, toxicologist for the North Dakota State University Veterinary Diagnostic Lab.
Producers concerned about the effect of oil and gas development on livestock should:
— Monitor animals closely, document concerns with notes and photographs, and work closely with a local veterinarian.
— Have autopsies or other testing done on the animal as soon as possible. The North Dakota State University Veterinary Diagnostic Lab lab performs diagnostic evaluations if local veterinarians have concerns when animals die for an unknown reason, or if there’s a potential legal case involved, said Michelle Mostrom, toxicologist for the lab.
— Have your water supply tested regularly through a certified lab
Even if a loss is tied to oil and gas, it may be difficult to prove which company is responsible if multiple companies operate near the landowner’s property, Bismarck attorney Derrick Braaten said.