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Oil booms — and so does crime on the Plains

Oil workers live in temporary housing outside of Williston, where “man camps” dot the sparse North Dakota landscape. Organized drug trafficking and prostitution rings have also arrived.
Oil workers live in temporary housing outside of Williston, where “man camps” dot the sparse North Dakota landscape. Organized drug trafficking and prostitution rings have also arrived.
Published Apr. 24, 2012

GLASGOW, Mont. — Drug crimes in eastern Montana are up 172 percent. Assaults in Dickinson, N.D., have climbed 300 percent. And in once-sleepy Plentywood, Mont., there have been three gun crimes in the past few months — a prospect previously unheard of in the tiny community tucked against the Canada border.

Booming oil production has brought tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenues to a wide expanse of the Northern Plains. But it also has brought more crime, forcing law enforcement from the United States and Canada to deal with spiking offenses ranging from drug trafficking and gun crimes to prostitution.

The rural region is emerging as one of the top oil-producing areas of North America. Officials say up to 30,000 more workers could descend on the Bakken oil fields of Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan in the next few years.

The recent kidnapping and brutal murder of Sidney, Mont., teacher Sherry Arnold underscored the changes brought on by the rapid pace of drilling. Two men are in custody, but the case has left many residents shaken and led to a huge rise in applications to carry concealed weapons in Montana and North Dakota.

Towns like Plentywood, population 1,600, were until recently places "you could send your kids to the pool in the summertime on their bikes and not have to worry about it," said Sheridan County attorney Steven Howard.

"All those things are changing," he said, adding that the Arnold case "has had a chilling effect on our people."

Government officials predict the oil boom could last another decade or more as companies tap into a reserve estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to hold more than 4 billion barrels of crude. Oil company executives say there's even more, upward of 20 billion barrels that will be extracted using drilling techniques that were only recently perfected.

Industry representatives say companies go to lengths to ensure the workers they hire won't cause trouble — either on the job or in the community.

Drug tests and background checks are standard for many companies, said Kari Cutting with the North Dakota Petroleum Council. She added the lack of housing can quickly deter would-be workers who show up without a position already secured.

Some law enforcement officials, including Sidney Chief Frank DiFonzo, said the increase in crime has roughly tracked the increase in population, meaning the actual rate of offenses has been little changed.

Yet small communities and several Indian reservations in the Northern Plains have found themselves dealing with new types of crime more commonly associated with urban areas. Organized drug trafficking and prostitution rings top the list, officials said.

Mercer Armstrong with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the areas of southern Canada within the Bakken have seen a "major influx of criminality." That includes organized criminal enterprises from British Columbia moving into rural areas to establish the drug trade, he said.