Flathead Beacon: Tester Introduces Landmark Legislation to Permanently Protect Badger-Two Medicine

by Myers Reece

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester announced today that he has introduced the Badger-Two Medicine Protection Act, which proposes permanent protections on the 127,000-acre area along the Rocky Mountain Front flanked by the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Glacier National Park and Bob Marshall Wilderness.

A broad assortment of tribal leaders, community members, conservationists, ranchers, landowners and sportsmen praised the landmark legislation on July 22, noting its protections for outdoor recreation and conservation, as well as tribal rights on Blackfeet ancestral lands.

Tim Davis, chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, said the “Blackfeet Nation has maintained a profound connection to the Badger-Two Medicine since time immemorial.”

“It is our last cultural refuge, home to many of our origin stories, a stronghold for our ceremonies and traditions, and until it is permanently protected, we cannot rest,” Davis said. “This bill ensures the teaching of our Pikuni ancestors will be fulfilled and we can always be connected with the sacred. We are extremely grateful to Senator Tester for his support and leadership in our effort to protect these sacred lands.”

If passed into law, the act would protect in perpetuity the Badger-Two Medicine as a Cultural Heritage Area, guaranteeing continued public access for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, horse packing and other traditional uses.

Tester said the legislation builds upon existing protections by prohibiting commercial timber harvest, excluding vegetation management; making permanent the existing road construction ban; banning the use of motorized vehicles and mountain bikes; and prohibiting new structures, including water facilities, pipelines or buildings of any kind. Maintenance of existing structures, grazing allotments and current activities would still be permitted.

The designated area includes no private property and only one active grazing lease, which would be grandfathered in, according to Tester’s office.

In addition to the management restrictions, Tester’s legislation requires the U.S. Forest Service to consider new management proposals put forward by the Blackfeet Tribe and consult with the Tribe on management twice a year. It also gives the Tribe two 30-day veto windows on proposed new uses at the beginning and end of the environmental review process. The Badger-Two Medicine is located in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest in Glacier and Pondera counties.

In a press release, the Blackfeet Nation said the bill safeguards “our sacred cultural lands” and “defends Blackfeet rights in the area for perpetuity” after decades of uncertainty, with Davis calling it “a great day for our Blackfeet People.”

“For thousands of years Badger-Two Medicine has shaped the identity of our people,” Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person said. “I have always been told by our elders that our responsibility was to save those lands for our children and all future generations of Pikuni People. Sen. Tester has given us an opportunity to safeguard our sacred places, and to protect them always for the Blackfeet Nation and for all Montanans who use these mountains.”

The bill is nearly identical to proposed legislation endorsed by the Blackfeet Nation last month to permanently protect the Badger-Two Medicine by designating it a Cultural Heritage Area, which was drafted in partnership with Blackfeet leaders, non-tribal neighbors, hunters, anglers, conservationists, ranchers, local landowners and many others.

That proposal came on the heels of a decision earlier in the month by a federal appeals court to uphold the cancellation of the last remaining oil and gas lease in the area. The decision was the culmination of 40 years of efforts by the Blackfeet Nation and others to “defend the area from potential oil and gas development that threatened the vital ecological and cultural qualities of the area,” according to the Badger-Two Medicine Coalition, a diverse tribal and non-tribal collaboration between sportsmen, landowners, outfitters, ranchers, conservationists, community members and more.

“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,” Tester said in announcing the legislation.

“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 Badger-Two Medicine Coalition’s press release noted that the Cultural Heritage Area designation is supported by “both tribal and non-tribal interests and has been backed by the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the Blackfoot Confederacy, the National Congress of American Indians, and the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council.”

The coalition also cited recent polling by the University of Montana showing that 79% of Montanans support a Cultural Heritage Area designation for the Badger-Two Medicine.

“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,” Peter Metcalf, executive director of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, said. “This bill reflects a shared, made-in-Montana vision for the future of these culturally and ecologically important lands.”

Tony Bynum, a hunter and professional photographer from East Glacier Park, thanked Tester for acting to protect the Badger-Two Medicine region.

“The Badger-Two Medicine has been threatened by development for decades,” Bynum said, adding that Tester “has listened to Montanans and introduced legislation that will protect our wildlife, headwater streams, and local way of life from unforeseen development and future uncertainty.”

“After the Badger-Two Medicine Protection Act becomes law, the next generation will not have to fight the same battles we did,” Bynum said.

The Badger Two-Medicine is home to the headwaters of Badger Creek and South Fork Two Medicine River, which supply water to the reservation and northern plains of Montana and serve as a stronghold for one of the last genetically pure populations of westslope cutthroat trout east of the Continental Divide.

The area also offers rich wildlife habitat for species such as grizzly bears, elk, mountain goat, peregrine falcon, lynx and harlequin ducks, while providing a critical wildlife corridor between the protected lands of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, as well as the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

State Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, a Democrat from Browning representing House District 16, calls the Badger-Two Medicine “some of the best wild habitat on the planet.”

“For decades, the spectacular lands of the Badger-Two Medicine have been overshadowed by a cloud of uncertainty,” Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association said in a statement. “Now that cloud is lifting. This legislation is especially powerful, as it not only protects our wild heritage but also gives voice to those who, throughout too much of our history, have not been heard. It’s time to permanently protect the Badger-Two Medicine’s wildlands and wildlife, and to honor forever the Blackfeet Nation’s last cultural refuge.”

Harry Barnes, former chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, said the Badger-Two Medicine is “like a church to our people.”

“It is a powerful place of healing,” Barnes said. “In this time of COVID-19, with our elders and our communities at such risk, it is inspiring to know we will protect the healing wellsprings of Blackfeet culture.”

Terry Tatsey, a former Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member, noted that the “bill is special because it is the first proposal to be written with Blackfeet involvement.”

“Our voices are finally being heard,” Tatsey said. “Those mountains are where we still practice our culture and our ways, and where we find healing and guidance. It’s not just our history that’s tied to the Badger-Two Medicine – it’s our future, too.”