In Victory for Blackfeet Nation, Appeals Court Upholds Protection of Sacred Badger-Two Medicine
Today, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., upheld the cancellation of the last remaining federal oil and gas lease in Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine region adjacent to Glacier National Park. The historic decision protects lands and waters sacred to the Blackfeet and critical for wildlife habitat.
The 6,200-acre lease, held by Louisiana-based Solenex LLC, was one of many issued by the federal government in the early 1980s. Since then, with the leases under suspension for environmental and cultural review, other companies voluntarily retired all holdings in the Badger-Two Medicine, noting the area’s rich natural and cultural values. Solenex, however, filed a 2013 lawsuit demanding the right to begin drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine backcountry.
In March 2016, federal officials responded to that Solenex demands by canceling the company’s holding, saying the lease had been improperly issued in violation of environmental law and without required tribal consultation. Solenex again sued, seeking to overturn that decision, and a federal district court ruled for the company in September 2018, reinstating Solenex’s lease. But today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed that ruling, and restored the cancellation of the Solenex lease.
In their ruling, the Appeals Court judges fully vacated the lower court’s judgment, writing that: “The district court erred when it entered summary judgment in Solenex’s favor,” and noted that the basis for the earlier judgement was flawed.
“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 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. 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 LLC 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 that “the sensitivity to this special area outweighs development.”
In the years since the illegal drilling 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 recommendation 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, today’s decision affirming the lease cancellation was welcomed by members of the Blackfeet Tribe. “This ruling finally puts the federal government on the right side of history,” said Jack Gladstone, speaking on behalf of the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance. “The next step is to ensure the long-term future of the Badger-Two Medicine by securing permanent protection.”
“This ruling rightly rejects Solenex’s effort to resurrect an illegal oil and gas lease that never should have been issued in the first place,” said Tim Preso, Earthjustice attorney who represented the tribal and conservation groups challenging the lease reinstatement. “The value of the Badger-Two Medicine region is in its wild beauty and irreplaceable cultural significance for the Blackfeet Nation — not in oil and gas.”
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. Running Wolf is a Montana state legislator, 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. “The Badger-Two Medicine is rich in wildlife,” Metcalf said, “including black and grizzly bears, elk, moose, whitetail and mule deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep. The Solenex lease was tainted from the very beginning, and today’s ruling helps restore our trust in the government to uphold the law and do the right thing. The way to keep our public lands open and available for traditional uses such as hunting and fishing is by recognizing the best of the best and protecting it for everyone to enjoy.”
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,” he 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.”
The Badger-Two Medicine area is a federally-recognized Traditional Cultural District encompassing 165,588 acres along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. It is located adjacent to Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and serves as an important wildlife corridor between those protected lands. The area is considered sacred by the Blackfeet Nation and is home to many of the tribe’s traditional foods and medicines as well as many Blackfeet creation stories.
In addition to the Blackfeet Nation, a strong majority of Montanans have long opposed drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine. The Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, National Congress of American Indians, Glacier County Commissioners, retired Glacier National Park superintendents, retired U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management leadership all opposed the drilling proposals in the Badger-Two Medicine. Agencies including the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior have recommended all Badger-Two Medicine leases be canceled.
The history of longstanding opposition to oil and gas development in the Badger-Two Medicine area dates back more than 45 years, when the Blackfeet Nation officially declared the region sacred and declared that “disturbance of said Sacred Ground without consent of said Council shall not be allowed hereafter.” This formal position of the Blackfeet Tribe pre-dates the issuance of all energy leases in the area by a full decade, and clearly signaled to both the U.S. government and the leasing companies that industrial development of the land and waters of the Badger-Two Medicine would not be tolerated.
Over the years, the Blackfeet Nation, conservation partners and federal officials have made several attempts to settle the case with Solenex LLC executives. Offers included tax credits, land exchanges, alternative lease areas, cash buyouts, and access to tribal oil and gas fields. Solenex officials declined all offers, however, choosing instead to litigate in federal court.
Timothy Preso, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9699
John Murray, Blackfeet THPO, Pikuni Traditionalists, 406-338-7406
Tyson Running Wolf, MT HD16, Pikuni Traditionalists, (406) 845-2115
Jack Gladstone, Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, (406) 250-1080
Peter Metcalf, Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, (406) 387-9282