Today, a federal District Court in Washington, D.C., reinstated a canceled energy lease and drilling permit in Montana’s famed Badger-Two Medicine region, prolonging the threat of industrialization across Blackfeet Nation sacred lands.
“It’s just more of the same from people who refuse to consult with the Blackfeet Nation about the industrialization of our last cultural refuge,” said John Murray, Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. “We’ve lived under this kind of reckless threat to our sacred lands for decades, and we will never surrender to roads and drill rigs in the Badger-Two Medicine.”
Murray also leads the Pikuni Traditionalist Association, which was among the coalition of groups intervening to defend against the lawsuit brought by industry. The Blackfeet Nation also has filed legal briefings in the case, defending the Badger-Two Medicine against the roads and drill rigs associated with the controversial lease.
In a disappointing ruling, Judge Leon concluded that the Solenex lease was properly issued and therefore not subject to cancellation. The judge 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). His ruling reinstates the Solenex lease in the heart of the Badger-Two Medicine Area.
The 6,200-acre lease, held by Louisiana-based Solenex LLC, was one of many issued by the federal government in the early 1980s. Over the course of several decades, the vast majority of lease holders voluntarily relinquished their leases in recognition of the outstanding natural and cultural values of the area. Some leaseholder sold their leases to third parties who then returned them to the federal government for permanent retirement. Finally, the Department of Interior cancelled the small number of leases remaining and issued orders to refund the leaseholder’s purchase price and expenses associated with their lease. Solenex remained the sole company still demanding to develop the area, and in 2013 filed a lawsuit to force the government to authorize roadbuilding and exploratory drilling.
Peter Metcalf, executive director of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, noted that the struggle over the fate of the Solenex lease has included both disappointments and victories. “We have had to overcome many setbacks throughout this nearly 40-year effort to prevent irresponsible energy development from these ecologically and culturally vital lands,” Metcalf said. “Yet despite the immense obstacles, we’ve managed to prevent any development and retire 46 other leases. The narrative is clearly trending toward protecting the Badger-Two Medicine and I’m confident we will ultimately eliminate this final lease too.”
As evidence, Metcalf pointed to the recent U.S. Forest Service plan that acknowledges and protects the remarkable natural and cultural values of the Badger-Two Medicine, and a recent statewide poll that shows nearly 80% of Montanans support Tribes adopting a greater management role on culturally important public lands (University of Montana, Public Land Survey 2022). These developments follow several protective decisions in the Badger-Two Medicine: the area is now designated a Traditional Cultural District; it is protected by the Forest Service’s Roadless Rule and a ban on motorized use, both of which limit future road building and logging in the area; and Congress has prohibited all future mineral exploration, including oil and gas leasing, throughout the area as well.
“These protections and public sentiments reflect the fact that the Badger-Two Medicine is a world-class landscape,” Metcalf said. “It’s some of the absolute finest habitat we have for Montana’s wildlife, habitat that is essential to sustaining the renowned wildlife of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.”
Tyson Running Wolf, a Montana state legislator, former Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member, hunting outfitter and leader among Blackfeet traditionalists, said the Solenex executives and attorneys simply do not understand the importance of the Badger-Two Medicine to Blackfeet culture and lifeways. “This is a place where original creation still lives,” Running Wolf said. “There are very few of those places left on this Earth. The stakes here go way beyond a couple years of profit for some oil company. This is our inheritance and legacy we’re talking about. This is about our cultural survival as Blackfeet People.”
The Badger-Two Medicine, Running Wolf said, will not be industrialized. “This is more than land,” he said. “It’s an entire way of life, a path to a strong and healthy future. Blackfeet will have a say in that future, regardless of today’s ruling. We’ve been here since time immemorial, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Pikuni Traditionalist Association and Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance were joined in defending the lawsuit by Blackfeet Headwaters Alliance, Wild Montana (formerly Montana Wilderness Association), National Parks Conservation Association and The Wilderness Society. Represented by Earthjustice, the coalition is considering all legal options.
The Badger-Two Medicine area is a 130,000-acre roadless portion of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest 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 Blackfeet creation stories. Due to its significance to Blackfeet cultural identity, it has been federally-recognized as a Traditional Cultural District.
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 US 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.
In 2013, Solenex LLC filed suit in DC District Court, demanding government authorization to develop its lease-holding in the Badger-Two Medicine area. In March 2016, the Department of Interior responded to the Solenex demand by canceling the company’s lease, saying it had been improperly issued in violation of environmental law and without required tribal consultation. Solenex filed new litigation challenging that cancelation, and the court reinstated the lease. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned that ruling and re-canceled the lease, sending the matter back to the lower court to resolve Solenex’s remaining legal claims.
Today’s ruling by that lower court could open the sacred and ecologically-sensitive Badger-Two Medicine area to road building and exploratory drilling, and lead to the desecration of the Blackfeet people’s spiritual homeland. In its lawsuit, Solenex LLC has requested reinstatement of its lease to build roads, well pads, and temporary bridges in the Badger-Two Medicine. Other companies have voluntarily relinquished their leases in the area, noting that doing so is “the right thing to do,” and that “the sensitivity to this special area outweighs development.”
The roadless Badger-Two Medicine area is part of 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 Blackfeet creation stories.
In the years since the 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 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. The Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have all defended the lease cancelation against the Solenex litigation.
Tribal members and a strong majority of Montanans continue to oppose 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 oppose drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine area. Agencies including the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior have recommended that all leases be removed from the Badger-Two Medicine area.