An American Indian tribe has broken off consultations with the U.S. government over a longstanding proposal by a Louisiana company to drill for natural gas in Montana on land considered sacred by the Blackfeet people.
Blackfeet tribal leaders said after three rounds of negotiations, they remain steadfast in their opposition to drilling in the Badger-Two Medicine area outside Glacier National Park.
"We are not going to speak to anything other than no development," said Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer John Murray.
Solenex LLC of Baton Rouge has been seeking for decades to drill on a 6,200-acre lease in the Badger-Two Medicine that it acquired in 1982, but approval has been held up by federal officials. The company sued in 2013 to overturn a suspension that's in place on the leases, and is requesting to begin drilling this summer.
The case is before U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington, D.C. Leon has sharply criticized the government's handling of the case and the long delay experienced by Solenex.
The head of the law firm representing Solenex said Thursday that the tribe's end to the formal consultation process was yet another attempt to delay drilling.
"It's something the tribe cannot stop," said William Perry Pendley, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation. "This land belongs to the U.S. government, the American people, and our client has a property right to it."
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The Badger-Two Medicine area is the home of the creation story of the four Blackfoot tribes in Canada and Montana and the Sun Dance that is central to their religion. The land is part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, but it is not on Montana's Blackfeet Reservation.
Consultations between the tribe, government and the other parties in the dispute have taken place under a process guided by federal laws that are meant to preserve historic and cultural resources.
As part of that process, the Forest Service in December determined drilling would adversely affect the sacred site and reduce its spiritual power for the Blackfeet. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation agreed with that finding in January.
The tribe's notice that it was ending consultations kicks of a 45-day deadline for the advisory council to issue comments to the Forest Service on how to proceed.
Dozens of oil and gas leases were originally sold in the area, but over the years most have been retired or surrendered. Only 18 suspended leases remain, including Solenex's.
Blackfoot leaders have asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to cancel the leases.
Fifteen of the leases are held by Oklahoma-based Devon Energy. The company's general counsel and executive vice president, Lyndon Taylor, is listed as a board member of Solenex's law firm, the Mountain States Legal Foundation.