Saturday, April 2, 2016

Keeping The Badger-Two Wild

Badger-Two Medicine, Photo by Tony Bynum
I first ventured into the Badger-Two Medicine area when I was a troubled, struggling young man fresh out of the Marine Corps in 1986. It was there where I encountered my first wild grizzly, caught my first wild cutthroat, and killed my first wild mule deer. Good, wild medicine, indeed!

Last week, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the cancellation of oil and gas leases held by a company named Solenex within the Badger-Two Medicine, helping ensure the place remains forever wild. It’s a sweet victory in a long, ongoing battle that is not yet over. As Jamie Williams of The Wilderness Society puts it: “It is a turning point in the decades-long fight to protect the Badger-Two Medicine area of Montana. The Interior Department recognizes that the Badger is simply too sacred and too wild to drill. The cultural heart of the Blackfeet Nation deserves protection and respect.”

Ten years ago while working for Trout Unlimited I assisted a coalition of local hunters, anglers, ranchers, outfitters, businessmen and tribal leaders in a successful effort to protect a significant chunk of the Rocky Mountain front from gas and oil development, fairly close to the Badger-Two Medicine area. Working as a professional conservationist I had to be cautious about using emotional arguments, about calling a place “sacred,” but instead focused on the importance of hunting, fishing, clean water and wildlife to the economy. Being sacred is no longer enough to save a place; It has to be one form of human commodity or another. But when a local man from Choteau named Stoney Burke was accused of being “emotional” about places like the Badger-Two Medicine Area he pounded his fist on a table and shouted, “You’re goddamn right I’m emotional – if you can’t be emotional about a place like this then what the hell can you be emotional about?” He compared putting roads and gas wells along the Front to permanently scarring his daughter’s face. When someone mentioned that Forest Service lands are managed for multiple use, and so gas and oil development should be allowed, Stoney said, “Multiple use doesn’t mean you take a crap in your kitchen.”

Elk, bighorns, badgers, wolverines, lynx, mountain lions, wolves and an abundance and diversity of other wildlife thrive on this land. Clear, clean rivers sustain some of the last remaining healthy populations of Westslope cutthroat trout. Grizzlies still wander out onto the plains like they did when Lewis and Clark came through. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared it the “top one percent” of wildlife habitat remaining in the Continental U.S. It’s long been sacred ground to the Blackfeet Nation. Much of it has been permanently protected from gas and oil development.

Unfortunately, the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area – which borders Glacier National Park, The Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Blackfeet Nation – remains threatened. In 1981, the Department of the Interior began issuing oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine without full environmental review and consulting the Blackfeet people, violating laws that require they do so. Since then, some of the leases have been relinquished voluntarily by energy interests. However, a handful of companies have declined offers to buy-out or swap their leases for holdings in less sensitive areas. One of those companies, Solenex, filed suit in 2013, demanding access to their highly-contested lease area, precipitating the need to rid Badger-Two Medicine of leases once and for all. The recent cancellation of the Solenex lease is a promising step in that direction.

The Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, made up of a diversity of local hunters, anglers, businessmen and other citizens, has been helping the Blackfeet Nation fight this battle since 1984, along with the Montana Wilderness Association, The Wilderness Society and several hunting and fishing conservation organizations. As the newly-hired western Montana field representative for the Montana Wildlife Federation, I look forward to re-engaging in this important effort to protect this unique and wild place.

While working along the Front a decade ago, I became acquainted with Chief Earl Old Person, Chief of the Blackfeet Nation. One time, while eating breakfast together at the Two Medicine Cafe in East Glacier, I shared with the Chief some personal struggles. He suggested a few remedies; one of them was the Badger-Two Medicine Area. “Go there,” he said. “You’ll feel better.”

I did. And I’ve gone back time and time again – backpacking, hunting, fishing and freely roaming the wilds. We need to ensure that people will always have that opportunity. By working together, we can all help achieve the vision of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance: “A child of future generations will recognize and can experience the same cultural and ecological richness that we find in the wild lands of the Badger-Two Medicine today.”

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