Blackfeet Leaders Skeptical of Zinke’s Monument Recommendation

Tribe, conservation groups have been working for decades to protect sacred Badger-Two Medicine

By Tristan Scott
Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Harry Barnes laughs with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke after a ceremony with members of the Blackfeet in West Glacier on March 10, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recommendation to reduce the size of four large national monuments in the West — an unprecedented charge that he dispatched at the behest of President Donald Trump — held few surprises.

Except in Montana.

The Whitefish native’s proposal would scale back two prominent monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, as well as Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou.

In Montana, however, Zinke not only left untouched the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, but he recommended halting mining along the state’s border with Yellowstone National Park and, most surprisingly, adding the Badger-Two Medicine area near Glacier National Park to the list of monuments.

Those familiar with the Badger-Two Medicine, and the Blackfeet Nation’s decades-long struggle to protect it from mining, development and natural resource extraction, greeted the news with mixed reactions.

“We appreciate Secretary Zinke recognizing and acknowledging that the Badger-Two Medicine deserves protection because of its cultural significance to the Blackfeet people,” said Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association, a group that has worked alongside the tribe to advocate for permanent protection of the area.

“But that’s a discussion that must include the Blackfeet Nation and the many other stakeholders who have been working for decades and even centuries as stewards of the Badger-Two Medicine,” he continued. “It’s just not acceptable to propose monument protection for the Badger-Two Medicine while at the same time proposing to strip monument protections from Bears Ears and other national treasures that are just as sacred to Native Americans and as culturally and ecologically rich. We need to remember that each of these protected monuments is someone’s Badger-Two Medicine.”

The Badger-Two Medicine area encompasses roughly 130,000 acres and is bordered by Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness area and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. It is considered a critical ecological corridor as well as the birthplace of Blackfeet creation stories.

The tribe has worked for three decades to cancel a host of energy leases from their sacred homeland, arguing they were illegally issued and compromised the land’s cultural significance.

With that in mind, the Blackfeet welcomed the news last January that the Obama administration had canceled the two remaining oil and gas leases in the area, prompting the company that owned the leases, Solenex LLC, to file a lawsuit against the federal government alleging the cancellation was issued illegally.

Until the lawsuit is resolved, the fate of the Badger-Two Medicine remains uncertain.

Harry Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, said while furnishing the Badger with permanent protection is among his top priorities, he’s leery of a federal designation that could trammel the tribe’s sovereign rights.

“Obviously we have been fighting for years to protect the Badger-Two Medicine, but we are somewhat reticent with regards to accepting any federal designation because almost any federal designation will denigrate the rights of the tribe,” Barnes said. “We do have reserved treaty rights in the Badger-Two Medicine area. These are legal rights that give us a certain amount of ownership. We have the right to hunt, fish, gather, collect logs for our homes, raise our herds. Those rights belong to us, and they were reserved for the Blackfeet people. So it could get touchy under a federal designation.”

Lou Bruno, a retired Browning schoolteacher who lives in East Glacier, has been advocating for protections in the Badger-Two Medicine area for more than 30 years. He encouraged Zinke to reaffirm his department’s lease cancellations and previous lease buybacks rather than add it to the diminishing list of national monuments.

“It appears that, according to Trump, any president can come along and shrink our national monuments or completely eliminate them,” Bruno said. “If that’s the kind of protection the Badger is going to get under Ryan Zinke’s recommendation, it’s not good enough. It’s got to be more permanent than that.”

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