U.S. Senator Jon Tester on Friday blasted the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), saying agency leaders reneged on a commitment to the Blackfeet Nation by reversing a decision to defend the cancellation of an oil and gas lease and furnish permanent protections on the culturally and ecologically sacred Badger-Two Medicine area.
In a change of course last month, attorneys representing the U.S. Department of the Interior filed paperwork announcing they will not defend the cancellation of one of the last remaining oil and gas leases on the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine, an area flanking Glacier National Park that holds cultural and ecological significance to members of the Blackfeet Nation.
Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish native, had previously said he would defend the lease cancellations.
While members of the Blackfeet Nation expressed disappointment and frustration in the Interior’s decision not to fight an appeal by lease-owner W.A. Moncrief Jr, the Interior Department is expected to defend the cancellation of a second lease held by Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge, which is also being fought on appeal.
However, Tester, D-Montana, took aim at Interior officials for their unwillingness to defend the lease cancellations in their entirety.
“I am deeply disappointed in your recent actions,” Tester wrote to Secretary Bernhardt. “These actions represent a troubling abdication of DOI’s responsibility and disregard for the opinions of both the Blackfeet Nation and Montanans. I urge you to uphold the Department’s promises to the Blackfeet Nation and all Montanans and rejoin the efforts to defend Badger-Two Medicine from unwanted development.”
The leases were originally canceled by the Interior Department under President Barack Obama, but U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ruled last September that action was improper. Last November, attorneys representing the Interior filed a notice of appeal challenging Judge Leon’s decision to reinstate the leases.
In a statement to reporters, Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Tim Davis said the decision is a marked departure from the government’s earlier pledge to defend the Badger-Two Medicine; however, members of the Blackfeet Nation will continue to work to protect the region from development in perpetuity.
“While we are disappointed that the U.S. government and DOI have chosen not to honor commitments made to our Nation by fully defending our lands in court, we look forward to working alongside our federal partners to resolve these issues through negotiation, settlement and exchange,” Davis wrote in a statement.
Tester, who opposed Bernhardt’s nomination to lead the Interior in part because of his withdrawal of the Interior’s defense of the Badger-Two Medicine lease withdrawal, has long supported permanent protections in the region.
“We thank Senator Tester for his steadfast support and commitment to the Blackfeet people,” Davis said. “For 30 years, we lived under threat that the Badger-Two Medicine might be dug up and desecrated. We rejoiced when that threat was finally lifted in 2017, but now the Department of the Interior has gone back on its word, wronging the Blackfeet people all over again.”