In the 2017 report that rolled back Bears Ears National Monument, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tacked on a footnote saying that a little-known swath of land in Montana — the Badger-Two Medicine — was worthy of monument status.
A staggeringly beautiful landscape bounded by Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Blackfeet Reservation, the Badger-Two Medicine is part of the traditional homeland of the Blackfeet Nation. It’s home to many Blackfeet origin stories, and Tribal members still practice traditional ceremonies there. It’s also important habitat for denning grizzlies and their cubs, rare lynx, wolverines and some of the last genetically pure cutthroat trout on the planet.
Now part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, the Badger-Two Medicine has been under threat from oil and gas development for nearly 40 years. Zinke, however, resigned in 2018 before taking action to protect it, and since then, the threat has escalated: William Perry Pendley, lead council for the company suing for oil and gas drilling rights in the Badger-Two Medicine, was appointed acting director of the Bureau of Land Management — the agency that controls oil and gas on public lands.
The Blackfeet Nation has since drafted its own legislation to permanently protect its cultural homeland. The Badger-Two Medicine Protection Act, unveiled by the Blackfeet Nation on June 26 and introduced by Montana Sen. Jon Tester, D, July 22, would permanently protect 130,000 acres of the Badger-Two Medicine as a “cultural heritage area”: a first-of-its-kind designation that could potentially usher in a new national system for protecting public lands in Indian Country.
John Murray, Blackfeet tribal historic preservation officer, said that this kind of protection is akin to a modern version of the Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to designate national monuments by proclamation — a protection proven to be tenuous under the Trump administration. “One hundred years ago, the Antiquities Act was sufficient. But we know from Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears, monuments that weren’t permanently protected, that that’s no longer the case.” In contrast, a cultural heritage area designation would require a two-thirds majority of Congress and a presidential signature — and it would take just as much effort to undo it.
“We’ve been working on this for many years, with partners from all across the state,” said Murray. “The future of our traditional homeland has been uncertain for too long. It’s time to protect the Badger-Two Medicine once and for all.”
The once-vast territory of the Blackfeet Nation originally stretched from present-day North Dakota, west to the Rocky Mountains and north into Canada. In the 1870s, the U.S. government used an executive order to take Blackfeet land from the Yellowstone to the Marias River, without negotiation, consent, treaty or payment. In the 1890s, without permission, prospectors began mining for gold on Blackfeet spiritual land in the Sweet Pine Hills (now the Sweet Grass Hills) to the east, and in what’s now Glacier National Park to the west.
Faced with genocide, starvation and disease, the Blackfeet were eventually forced to relinquish much of their land to the U.S., signing an agreement with the government in 1895 to cede a wide strip that included the Badger-Two Medicine. In 1910, President William Howard Taft designated its northern chunk as Glacier National Park, again without consultation or negotiation with the Blackfeet Nation, despite explicit treaty rights and the land’s spiritual significance to the tribe. Many years later, President Ronald Reagan sold the first of 47 oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine. Over the next two decades, the Blackfeet fought each and every lease, asserting that they were illegal; the government didn’t own those resources, and, according to an 1895 agreement, the Blackfeet ceded only the rights to mine the hardrock minerals of gold, silver and copper.
The Blackfeet and their partners were largely successful; in January 2017, the Interior Department canceled all leases in the Badger-Two Medicine. One company, however, refused to back down: Solenex, represented by William Perry Pendley, sued the government to reinstate its lease. Finally, on June 16, a panel of judges in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals canceled the Solenex lease, opening a window for the Blackfeet Nation to focus on permanently protecting all that remains of the ceded strip.
“This is the first time in 40 years that we have been out from under the threat of industrial leases.”
“This is the first time in 40 years that we have been out from under the threat of industrial leases,” said Terry Tatsey, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. “The cultural heritage area plan is the first proposal to be written with Blackfeet involvement, and with Blackfeet values included.”
“A few weeks ago, the Blackfeet Tribe and the people of Montana won a huge victory for our public lands when the last oil and gas lease in the Badger-Two Medicine was remanded to a lower court,” said Tester. “Now it’s time we build on this momentum and continue the fight to safeguard this sacred area, which is why I am introducing legislation that honors the will of the Blackfeet Tribe and of public lands owners across our state by permanently protecting the Badger-Two Medicine for future generations.”
The designation guarantees that existing treaty rights will be honored, establishes formal tribal consultation with the U.S. Forest Service in future management decisions, and provides the Blackfeet Nation an opportunity to conduct trail maintenance and other contracted forest work.
The proposed protection largely keeps other uses as they are, guaranteeing continued public access for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, horse packing and grazing rights, and prohibiting oil and gas development, commercial timber harvest and motorized use. The proposal also protects headwater streams that are an important source of clean water for communities both on and off the reservation.
The plan already enjoys broad support in Montana and is backed by hunters, anglers, ranchers, major conservation groups, outfitters and guides. “The Badger-Two Medicine is some of the finest wild country in Montana, and a cherished land where so many of us who live here hunt, hike, ride horses or enjoy time in nature,” said Peter Metcalf, Executive Director of the local Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance conservation group. “This bill reflects a shared, made-in-Montana vision for the future of these culturally and ecologically important lands.”
Beyond the state, it’s been endorsed by the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council and the National Congress of American Indians. It is even backed by a former oil lease holder in the Badger-Two Medicine, Devon Energy Corporation, which voluntarily relinquished 15 lease blocks in 2016, saying that cancelling its leases in the area “was the right thing to do.”
Given Zinke’s recommendation for protecting the Badger-Two Medicine, as well as the Trump Interior Department’s move to cancel oil leases there, the Blackfeet Nation and its partners hope for swift, bipartisan national action in passing the legislation.
While Sen. Steve Daines and Montana gubernatorial candidate Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans, haven’t signed onto the legislation yet, both have indicated support for working with the Blackfeet.
“This land heals,” Murray said, “and I think all of us could use some healing in the world right now.”
Cassidy Randall writes about adventure, environment and the intersections between from Missoula, Montana, and Revelstoke, B.C. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.
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