A federal appeals court on Tuesday delivered a monumental victory to the Blackfeet Nation and conservation advocates when it upheld the cancellation of the last remaining oil and gas lease in the culturally sacred Badger-Two Medicine region adjacent to Glacier National Park.
The panel of three appellate judges with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia determined that a lower district court erred when it ruled in favor of the leaseholder, Louisiana-based Solenex LLC, and vacated the judgment, remanding the case back to the lower court for further proceeding.
“We’re obviously very disappointed in the panel’s decision today, particularly their refusal to engage with any of the arguments we raised on appeal,” David McDonald, attorney for Solenex, which is owned by Sidney Longwell, told the Associated Press. “We fully intend on continuing to fight for Solenex and the Longwell family, and we’re currently considering all available avenues to do so.”
Although the ruling does not fully resolve the hard-fought efforts by Blackfeet leaders and traditionalists to cancel the lease, and still falls short of furnishing permanent protections on the area, the decision was widely celebrated.
The 6,200-acre oil and gas lease held by Solenex for three decades was among those issued by the federal government in the early 1980s, despite questions of legal validity that have persisted for decades. Since then, with the leases under suspension for environmental and cultural review, other companies voluntarily relinquished all holdings in the Badger-Two Medicine, noting the area’s rich natural and cultural values. Solenex, however, has continued to pursue the right to drill in the Badger-Two Medicine backcountry.
For the Blackfeet, the most recent legal wrinkle began in 2016 when the Department of Interior canceled the company’s lease under the Obama administration; however, under pressure from Solenex, a Washington, D.C. district court reinstated the holding in 2018, granting summary judgment and ruling in the company’s favor, while prompting an appeal by the Blackfeet to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
On June 16, the panel of appellate judges issued a ruling that sided with the Department of Interior and conservation advocates defending the lease cancellation, including a coalition of Blackfeet traditionalists called the Pikuni Traditionalist Association, as well as the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance and conservation partners who have long sought to protect the Badger-Two Medicine Area from industrial development.
It’s the latest turn in a labyrinthine legal fight that has twisted on for years as Blackfeet leaders and conservation groups have worked to permanently protect 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.
“Blackfeet have lived under a cloud of threat and uncertainty for decades, with the risk of our traditional homelands being industrialized,” said John Murray, Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. Murray also leads the Pikuni Traditionalist Association, which was among the groups intervening to defend against the Solenex lawsuit.
“The Badger-Two Medicine is essential to the cultural survival of the Blackfeet,” he said. “It is our last refuge. The court’s decision today highlights the original error in leasing the Badger and provides great hope that historic mistakes can, at least in part, be corrected.”
Murray noted that the Blackfeet Nation’s efforts to settle the lawsuit had been repeatedly rebuffed by Solenex.
In its lawsuit, Solenex demanded that its canceled lease be reinstated, granting the company access to build roads, well pads, and a temporary bridge in the heart of the Badger-Two Medicine. A similar lawsuit was filed by W.A. Moncrief Oil Co., though that company ultimately chose to settle the matter out of court and retire all lease holdings in the area — noting “the sensitivity to this special area outweighs development.”
In the years since the leases were granted, many steps have been taken to protect the area, including: designation as a Traditional Cultural District; a permanent prohibition on all future leasing; a ban on all motorized uses; voluntary retirement of nearly all historic leases; and bipartisan recommendations by both the U.S. Senate and Trump Administration for full federal protection under a national monument or other land designation.
Coming on the heels of these efforts, Tuesday’s decision affirming the lease cancellation was welcomed by members of the Blackfeet Tribe, who urged federal legislation to permanently protect the land.
Speaking on behalf of the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, tribal member and musician Jack Gladstone said the ruling “finally puts the federal government on the right side of history.”
“The next step is to ensure the long-term future of the Badger-Two Medicine by securing permanent protection,” he said.
Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who represented the tribal and conservation groups challenging the lease reinstatement, said the ruling “rightly rejects Solenex’s effort to resurrect an illegal oil and gas lease that never should have been issued in the first place.”
Preso argued the case on behalf of intervenors including Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, Pikuni Traditionalist Association, Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, Montana Wilderness Association, National Parks Conservation Association and The Wilderness Society. These organizations have since joined the Blackfeet Nation in calling for permanent protection of the Badger-Two Medicine.
“Our traditional practices and traditional lands are the firm ground underfoot that we need to push off into the future,” said Tyson Running Wolf, a state representative, former Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member, hunting outfitter and leader among Blackfeet traditionalists. “This is how we heal ourselves, how we heal our communities, how we move forward into success. The Badger-Two Medicine is more than just land; it’s an entire way of life.”
Peter Metcalf, of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, agreed and noted that the significance of the area extends well beyond tribal communities to include all Montanans. Metcalf also warned that Solenex may well seek to continue their court fight over its lease, and that further defense against industry lawsuits may still be required.
“That’s exactly why we need to protect the Badger-Two Medicine permanently and once and for all,” Metcalf said. “Without legislated protections, we will all be living under the threat of industry lawsuits. It’s long past time to protect the Badger, and to permanently secure the best of Montana’s heritage for all of us and for generations to come.”