By Rick Lovett

The American West is no longer wild, but lawlessness seems to be rising in the boom towns created as a result of expanding demand for oil and gas, according to a new study.

Oil and gas development has long drawn criticism for its environmental effects, which range from road-killed wildlife to unhealthy ozone levels. But a study published in Conservation Biology now shows that it has social effects, too. Focusing on just one aspect of lawlessness -- sexual predation -- the study has found that twice to three times as many sexual predators are flocking to the boom towns as to nearby tourist, ranching and farming communities.

The study looked at nine counties near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, examining the year-by-year trends in the number of registered sexual offenders there since 1997, when registrations first became mandatory. It also looked at the number of hospital beds in each county, which the authors used as a measure of the level of community services.

The researchers found that, per capita, the number of hospital beds was the same everywhere, but the number of sexual offenders had grown much more rapidly in the oil and gas towns than in those dependent on recreation or agriculture.

Jeffrey Jacquet, an energy-development sociologist at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, isn't surprised, although he wishes that the study had examined a larger geographical region. He has seen similar trends in the Marcellus shale natural-gas region in Pennsylvania (see report). "Crime has increased -- or at least there's a perception of increased crime," he says. "There's a trend that seems to replicate itself where there's this kind of development. So it would make sense that you would see things like increases in sexual predation."

Crime boom

Joel Berger, a biologist at the University of Montana in Missoula and the Wildlife Conservation Society, headquartered in New York, and lead author of the study, says that the work was inspired by an older study that found increases in wildlife poaching in oil and gas boom towns.

To some extent, both this and the high numbers of sex offenders might simply reflect the fact that sex offenders are overwhelmingly male and that oil and gas towns attract a disproportionate number of men. "I don't have hard data," he says, "but I know that both when I've been in bars and out in the gas fields it's struck me that there's a 10:1 gender ratio."

"We didn't adjust for that," he adds. "We just looked at the total rate of sexual offenders moving in." But, he says, from the town's perspective that doesn't matter. "This shows who's moving in, and that is what we care about, because the towns are attracting this element who have a pretty strong criminal background," he says.

Berger's coauthor, Jon Beckmann, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, argues that such changes come hand-in-hand with the effects traditionally deplored by environmentalists.

"We need to be concerned not only with the impacts on ecological communities, but also with society," he says. "We need to be aware that all these types of changes can occur, so that we're prepared and can best deal with them."

Historical problem

The problem is not limited to oil and gas towns either. "There's a whole body of literature that shows that mining boom towns undergo similar changes," Beckmann says.


Berger adds that the same trends have been seen elsewhere, whether it's the western United States, the tar sands of Canada or Ecuador. "The lure of quick money carries some risk," he says.

Older mining booms faced their own versions of such problems. During the California Gold Rush, for example, mining camps could be very unruly. "Some mining towns were well known for raucous behaviour, prostitution, wild times," Berger says.

Darci Moore, curator of the California State Mining and Mineral Museum, in Mariposa, California, agrees. "There was a lot of drinking, a lot of gambling," she says. "That's how the miners, if they did make any money, tended to lose their money.