- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Blackfoot tribal leaders from Canada and Montana are calling on the U.S. government to cancel oil and gas leases on sacred land near Glacier National Park, as a lawsuit works its way through the federal courts.

Representatives from the three tribes in Canada and one in Montana that make up the Blackfoot Confederacy sent a letter Friday to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging them to cancel 18 leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area.

They are backed by a resolution of support from the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, which represents the Native American tribes in those states.

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, which is habitat for grizzly bears, elk, mountain goats and other animals, is not on the Blackfeet Reservation, but is part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Originally, 47 oil and gas leases were issued in the area in 1982, but they were indefinitely suspended in the 1990s. Over the years, most of the leases were retired or surrendered, and now only 18 remain covering more than 40,000 acres.

One leaseholder, Sidney Longwell of Solonex LLC, filed a federal lawsuit last year to lift the suspension and begin exploration on the 6,200-acre lease Longwell has held since 1982. The lawsuit says the suspension was never meant to last forever and it has caused an unreasonable and illegal delay in development.

The parties in the lawsuit in August asked a U.S. District judge in Washington, D.C., to decide the case without going to trial.

In their letter to Jewell and Vilsack, Blackfeet Tribal Business councilmen Harry Barnes and Tyson Running Wolf say the leases were granted without consultation with the tribes, without review of the land’s cultural value and without a proper analysis of the environmental effects.

They say the government has the legal authority and the moral obligation to cancel the leases before any development begins by Solonex.

“Should this company prevail, any short-term private-industry profit from energy development will irrevocably change the Blackfeet’s ancient right to the natural capacity, power and ability of the land, including its plants, animals and the region’s pristine and isolated nature,” the letter says.

Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said Saturday the agency has received the letter and will review it.

Solonex attorney Steven Lechner did not return a call and email for comment.

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