Blackfeet Traditionalists Appeal Reinstatement of Badger-Two Medicine Energy Lease

The Tribe’s renewed efforts to challenge the lease follows a judge’s decision to restore the oil and gas claim on sacred cultural ground near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation

By Tristan Scott
Aerial views of the Badger-Two Medicine area on July 14, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The cultural stewards of the Blackfeet Nation on Nov. 2 filed a legal challenge to a federal judge’s recent ruling that restored the last remaining energy claim in the Badger-Two Medicine region, renewing the threat of industrialization on lands held sacred to the tribe even as its cultural leaders pledge to move forward in their decades-long fight.

The appeal, filed in Washington, D.C. by the Pikuni Traditionalist Association (PTA), seeks to protect the Badger-Two Medicine area from energy exploration permitted by an oil and gas lease the Tribe asserts was illegally issued in the 1980s. The long-disputed energy lease, which is held by the Louisiana-based company Solenex LLC, seeks to build a well pad, a road, and temporary bridges on a culturally and ecologically rich swath of land girding Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. After three decades of legal wrangling, the lease was canceled in 2016 under then-U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, a decision upheld by a federal appeals court in 2020.

In September, however, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon issued a ruling in response to a lawsuit brought by Solenex, a decision that overturned the Interior’s cancellation. In his ruling, Leon chastened the federal agencies that first approved the lease in 1982 for setting off “a never-ending series of administrative reviews [that] have precluded any activity for nearly forty years.”

“How Kafkaesque!” Leon exclaimed in his ruling, concluding the Solenex lease was properly issued and therefore not subject to cancellation.

Other energy companies have voluntarily relinquished their leases in the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area, acknowledging that the leases were issued decades ago without sufficient input from tribal members who raised cultural concerns. However, Solenex has continued its legal efforts to preserve the drilling rights, arguing in a lawsuit against the Interior Department that the federal agency exceeded its authority and the lease should be reinstated.

Judge Leon has rejected the federal government’s rationale for cancelling the Solenex lease and disagreed with the claims that drilling and roadbuilding in the Badger-Two Medicine would irrevocably harm the cultural and ecological values of the area, which is a designated Traditional Cultural District (TCD).

Blackfeet traditionalists, elders and a host of conservation groups disagree and have promised to continue the fight to furnish the Badger-Two Medicine with permanent protections — a mission that has gained varying degrees of support from Montana’s congressional delegation.

PTA member and Montana Rep. Tyson Running-Wolf emphasized that the entire Blackfoot Confederacy, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, which represents tribes across the Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and the National Congress of American Indians, are all standing together with the Blackfeet Nation.

“We will never cede sacred ground to those who would defile it,” Running Wolf said. “And it’s not just about Indian Country, for decades now, Republican and Democratic administrations have supported a lease-free Badger because the place is important to all the people of Montana.”  

Joining the PTA in appealing the lease reinstatement is a coalition of conservation groups, including: the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, Glacier Two Medicine Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society and Wild Montana. The groups say they collectively represent thousands of Montanans who “value the Badger-Two Medicine as a place of refuge, and actively use the area for hunting, fishing, hiking, and horseback riding.”

The groups intervened in the Solenex case to defend the Badger-Two Medicine region. Tim Preso, the Earthjustice attorney representing the intervenors said in a prepared statement that the “Solenex lease was illegally issued and we believe the court decision that reinstated it was wrongly decided. We will continue to advocate for this wild and sacred landscape until the last threat to its integrity is removed.” 

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