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Oil-Lease Cancellations in Western MT: A Win for Blackfeet Nation

The 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area in western Montana is now free of any oil or gas leases. (Dan/Flickr)
The 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area in western Montana is now free of any oil or gas leases. (Dan/Flickr)
January 18, 2017

EAST GLACIER, Mont. – With the cancellation of the final two oil and gas leases at Badger-Two Medicine, a three-decades-long effort in western Montana is one step closer to preserving a landscape with ties to the Blackfeet Nation, dating back 10,000 years.

Last week, the Interior Department canceled the leases and offered reimbursements to the final two holdouts. Now, the local Blackfeet tribe can tread the 130,000 acres without the prospect of future energy development.

John Murray, the historic preservation officer for the Blackfeet Nation, says even attempts to designate the land as wilderness miss the mark.

"Scenic it might be, but wild it isn't, because it's a living Blackfoot landscape, and we've used it," he said. "We didn't go around putting up billboards of what we did there."

Anthropological research has confirmed the site's historic significance to the Blackfeet Nation. The U.S. Forest Service and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation agreed that development in the area would adversely affect the cultural properties of the Blackfeet people there.

Murray notes the tribe is not against oil and gas drilling. As part of the agreement, the last two leaseholders: Moncrief Oil and the JG Kluthe Family Trust, were offered pre-drilled wells on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. He says over the years, local leaseholders have voluntarily handed over their claims for oil and gas development on the land.

"Some people relinquished their leases just because they went and seen the place, and couldn't imagine desecrating the landscape," he added.

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration sold oil and gas leases in Badger-Two Medicine for a dollar per acre, without consulting the Blackfeet or conducting an environmental impact study, which led courts to deem the leases illegal.

Tim Preso, the managing attorney for the Northern Rockies office of Earthjustice, says this time, the U.S. government worked with the Blackfeet in a way that it hasn't in the past.

"That they have important interests that are worthy of respect, and worthy of protective action," he explained. "And that's a real departure from the basic arc of history of the United States' relationship with the Blackfeet."

Leaseholder Solonex LLC says it will continue its legal battle to overturn the decision.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT