Refinery honored for wildlife site
What started with osprey trying to nest in a smokestack in 1998 led to a commitment by the Billings ExxonMobil Refinery to maintain a good share of its property as wildlife habitat.
The refinery's conservation efforts recently earned it international recognition by the Wildlife Habitat Council at its annual symposium in Baltimore. The council is a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing wildlife habitat on corporate, private and public lands.
ExxonMobil demonstrated its commitment to environmental stewardship and increasing native biodiversity by having its habitat program recertified. The refinery was one of 143 sites recognized at the 2005 symposium for creating a habitat program.
The certification program recognizes outstanding wildlife habitat management and environmental education efforts at corporate sites. Sites are required to apply for periodic review. The refinery was first certified in 2002.
"The union of conservation and industry, already well established at the Wildlife Habitat Council, serves as a model for protecting natural resources while emphasizing collaboration and community involvement," said Bill Howard, WHC president.
Long-term conservationDave Debats, the refinery's safety, health and environmental manager, said management began focusing on long-term conservation of wildlife habitat after the osprey arrived.
The company relocated the osprey nest and erected two more platforms for the fish-eating birds. The osprey have returned every year, and last year fledged two young, Debats said, sounding like a proud parent.
The refinery may seem like an unlikely site for wildlife habitat, but its location on about 720 acres next to the Yellowstone River offers food and shelter for a variety of wildlife.
About 110 acres of refinery property east of the plant's process area is dedicated to wildlife. The property, which was once a farm and had a gravel pit, has grasslands, marshes, large ponds and forested areas. More than a third of the area is either wetland or open water habitat.
As part of getting recertified, ExxonMobil developed a wildlife list, which includes 67 species of birds, more than a dozen mammals from red fox to American mink, 48 plant species, seven fish species and 10 reptiles and amphibians species.
Jim Hughs, the refinery's environmental coordinator for the wildlife team that oversees management of the area, said the team is composed of refinery employees along with community representatives. The group works with various experts and organizations when planning projects, he said.
In spring 2003, employees and their families constructed 30 American kestrel nest boxes and installed them in trees along one of the ponds. They also built a trail for easy monitoring of the boxes.
Last year, 17 kestrels occupied the boxes, which have also been used by woodpeckers and squirrels. The boxes are monitored regularly and have helped local high school students doing research projects.
Ongoing projects One of the ongoing projects is to replant an old quarry in which the banks have been reshaped to look more natural and islands have been created for waterfowl nesting. Because drought has made it difficult for native grasses to seed, the refinery installed a temporary irrigation system to help the plants get established, Hughs said.
The refinery also will be placing two bird viewing blinds built for the area last year by the Boy Scouts. Another project under way is to build nesting boxes for wood ducks.
The team has developed an area use policy to inform visitors and refinery employees about the area and to ensure their safety and the safety of wildlife. The team also maintains the trails and is working on a noxious weed program.
Future plans include installing a small visitor center so visitors will have a place to sit, Hughs said.
The wildlife area has served as an outdoor classroom to high school and college students in Billings as well as high school students in the region and Wyoming.
For years, the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society has surveyed the refinery's ponds for its annual Christmas bird count.
During a recent tour, whitetail deer bounded through the grass as Canada geese flew touch-and-gos on the ponds. A great blue heron made an appearance along with a red tail hawk and northern flicker.
Hughs pointed out a cottonwood snag near the old quarry pond and said bald eagles like to hang out there.
Sure enough, by the time the tour ended, a bald eagle had flown in and perched on a top branch.
Published on Monday, March 13, 2006.
Last modified on 3/13/2006 at 1:11 am