Federal District Court Judge Richard Leon in Washington, D.C. ruled today on a Louisiana oilman’s bid to drill for natural gas in the heart of the Badger-Two Medicine area of Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. The judge has ordered the U.S. Forest Service to “submit, and to stick to, an accelerated and fixed schedule” for determining whether to lift the suspension. The government must submit this schedule to the court within 21 days. The decision advances the efforts of Solenex, LLC to construct six miles of new road, a bridge across the Two Medicine River and a four-acre drill pad—all on public, roadless lands directly adjacent to Glacier National Park.
Kendall Edmo, a member of the Blackfeet Nation who has become deeply involved in the Badger-Two Medicine area and now works as the Bison Project Coordinator for the tribe, views the recent ruling as a serious threat to both spiritual practices and critical natural resources.
“The Badger-Two Medicine area should be protected not only because it is culturally significant to the Blackfeet people, but because we as human beings deserve access to clean water,” she says. “Solenex is threatening the same ecosystem my ancestors belong to, including major headwaters that run into the Blackfeet Reservation.”
Prior to the ruling, two local groups, the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance and Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, joined 10 conservation organizations supporting the Blackfeet Tribe’s request for the cancellation of all oil and gas leases it the Badger-Two Medicine area.
Courtesy of Montana Wilderness Association
Map of Badger-Two Medicine, showing location of Solenex well site.
The 165,588-acre area (encompassing lands within the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, the Lewis and Clark National Forest, and Flathead National Forest) was designated a Traditional Cultural District under the National Preservation Historic Act in recognition of its importance to the Blackfeet people. Biologically, this area is the last remaining stronghold along the Front for genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout. The area also provides key winter and summer range for over 800 elk and represents a large block of crucial secure habitat for grizzly bears.
In a letter delivered to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the 12 organizations, representing tens of thousands of Montanans, requested that the natural and cultural resources of the Badger be protected and the threat of development finally be put to rest. The letter states that the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service issued the leases in violation of bedrock environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and that the agencies have a legal and moral responsibility to cancel them.
“Today’s ruling is not the last word on the fate of the Badger-Two Medicine region,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso. “The remaining oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine were never validly issued in the first place. They should be cancelled in the interest of preserving one of our country’s last great wild places and an irreplaceable spiritual home for the Blackfeet Nation.”
Two additional letters, one from Backcountry Horsemen of Montana and another from five sportsmen’s groups, also support lease cancellation.
The history of conservation efforts in this area of northern Montana spans more than a century, beginning with the creation of Glacier National Park (1910), followed by the establishment of the Sun River Game Preserve (1913) and the designation of the Bob Marshall Wilderness (1964). These historic milestones have been complemented by recent activities that directly impact the Badger, including the ban on future oil and gas leases (2006 law introduced by then Senator Burns, R-MT), the prohibition on motorized use (2009 Travel Plan Decision), and the ultimate establishment and expansion of the Traditional Cultural District (2014). These Reagan-era leases stand out as dramatic inconsistencies and were granted without either tribal consultation or sufficient review of cultural resources.
Kendall Flint, of the Glacier Two-Medicine Alliance, sees today’s decision as having serious implications.
“Aside from sanctioning the unethical idea of invasive oil and gas exploration in a sacred and federally-recognized Traditional Cultural District, this ruling poses a grave threat to the landscape’s glorious wildlife, breathtaking scenery, and widely-enjoyed recreation,” he said. “The threat of lifting the Federal suspension leaves the entire Badger-Two Medicine vulnerable to the extractive industrial development by all four remaining lease holders.”
Five tribal and conservation organizations—including the Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, Glacier Two Medicine Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association, Montana Wilderness Association, and The Wilderness Society, all represented by Earthjustice—filed for intervenor status in the Solenex, LLC lawsuit, but the request was denied. The groups subsequently filed an amicus curiae or “friend of the court” brief to explain why Solenex had failed to justify its request to drill for oil and gas in the midst of sensitive cultural and environmental resources.
“The stories handed down for generations by Piikani People have taught us about the connections we have with all things,” says Terry Tatsey, Director of Institutional Development at Blackfeet Community College. “The relationships our people have with this area date back to our origin stories where it was known as a place for learning and respecting.