Defenders of the Badger-Two Medicine

Blackfeet tribal leaders anticipate historic cancellation of remaining energy leases on sacred land

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Sunset over the Badger-Two Medicine area on March 25, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Blackfeet tribal leaders, conservationists and cultural preservationists have made numerous pilgrimages to Washington, D.C. this year in hopes of furnishing permanent protections on the wild and sacred Badger-Two Medicine region, which for more than three decades has been threatened with industrialization.

This week, their efforts are expected to pay off.

Chief Earl Old Person and the Blackfeet Nation’s elected leadership arrived in the capital this week to underscore their long-standing request that federal land managers cancel a suite of remaining undeveloped oil and gas leases on the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine, which lies on the Rocky Mountain Front, bounded on the north by Glacier National Park and the east by the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

In March, their quest toward protection achieved a degree of success when Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the Bureau of Land Management had canceled a 6,200-acre lease in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. The lease, currently held by Solenex LLC, was issued by the BLM in 1982 on land considered sacred to the Blackfeet tribes of the U.S. and Canada.

The cancellation has been challenged in federal court by Solenex, the Louisiana company seeking to drill for oil and gas.

Left unresolved is the fate of 17 remaining leases on 42,000 acres in the Badger, 15 of which are held by oil and gas corporation Devon Energy of Oklahoma.

On Nov. 16, in a scheduled meeting with Jewell and Devon Energy officials, Blackfeet leaders were expected to announce the cancellation of the 15 leases held by Devon.

“We expect Secretary Jewell to retire 15 of Devon’s undeveloped leases, and I will tell you that we are pretty excited about that,” Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes said.

In 2006, then-Sen. Max Baucus passed legislation with bipartisan support to prohibit future federal energy leasing along the Rocky Mountain Front and to provide tax incentives for leaseholders to sell or donate their leases. The law also prohibits re-leasing of an existing lease that expires or is retired.

Since the lease withdrawal became law, approximately 110,800 of the original 152,000 acres the federal government leased have been permanently retired.

Stakeholders celebrated in March when the government took an additional step by canceling the Solenex lease, and tribal leaders turned up the pressure on the Interior Department in hopes of removing all remaining leases.

“This is the work of our generation,” Barnes said. “The time to do it is right now.”

The Badger-Two Medicine is home not only to the cradle of the Blackfeet creation story, but also to a range of wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves, wolverine, elk, and cutthroat trout. It serves as a primary migratory corridor, connecting the wilderness to the park and the rolling prairie to the rugged alpine peaks of Glacier Park.

It is also the headwaters of two drainages, Badger Creek and the South Fork Two Medicine River. Together, the two drainages water the reservation and the northern plains of Montana.

In a new documentary that showcases the 30-year struggle to protect the Badger-Two Medicine, which screens at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 17, Barnes explains that the Blackfeet “have tipi rings and ceremonial structures that date back 10,000 years” in the Badger-Two Medicine region, which is federally recognized as a Traditional Cultural District.

Earl Old Person, 87, served as an elected leader of the Blackfeet for 56 years, longer than any other elected official in Montana history. During that time, he was named president of the National Congress of American Indians, earned an honorary doctorate from the University of Montana and was awarded the Jeanette Rankin Civil Liberties Award.

As Blackfeet Chief, Old Person met the British royal family, the Shah of Iran, and every president since Harry Truman. Though he has not yet met President Barack Obama, he has corresponded via letters, requesting that the Badger-Two Medicine be protected.

“These ancient lands are among the most revered landscapes in North America and should not be sacrificed, for any price,” Old Person wrote in a 2015 letter to President Obama. “I believe that your Administration has the authority, the foresight and the principle to permanently protect the integrity of our cultural and natural heritage.”

Old Person joined the Blackfeet Nation’s elected leadership in Washington, D.C., to underscore the long-standing request that federal land managers help protect sacred tribal lands from industrial development.

Blackfeet leaders have invited a host of federal officials to attend the film-screening event, and are bringing with them the signatures of more than 1,000 Montanans who have viewed the documentary film during a statewide tour last month.

Tribal leadership is also seeking direct meetings with federal decision-makers and elected officials to discuss ongoing efforts to protect the land and withdraw the remaining oil and gas leases.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., emerged as an early proponent of canceling the leases, and hailed the decision to retire the leases as a victory.

“There are special places in this world where we just shouldn’t drill, and the Badger-Two Medicine is one of them,” Tester said.

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