WASHINGTON – In a victory for the Blackfeet Nation, the secretary of the interior canceled 15 of the remaining 34-year-old oil and gas leases of Montana land considered sacred by the tribe.

In a ceremony at the Department of the Interior, six Blackfeet tribal leaders, some wearing traditional headdresses over western clothes, met with Secretary Sally Jewell and Devon Energy Corp. CEO David Hager. They jointly announced that Devon will voluntarily return 15 of the final 17 leases of undeveloped land in the Badger-Two Medicine Area, a 132,000-acre region just east of the Blackfeet reservation and south of Glacier National Park.

“These were set many years ago in an area that should have never had oil and gas leases to begin with,” Jewell said. “I’m sorry it took so long to get to this point.”

Pulling back the Two-Badger Medicine leases marks the beginning of the end for the Blackfeet Tribe’s 30-year fight to take back the land the Reagan administration parceled out to energy companies in 1982. To the Blackfeet nation, this area is sacred land central to its religion and creation story.

Jewell said the federal government failed to consult with tribal leaders when it leased the land, which is now officially in the hands of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. She said if such procedures had been followed in other cases, such as at Standing Rock, there would be better cooperation between Native people and energy companies.

“Our pursuit to protect the Badger-Two Medicine will continue until all the illegal oil and gas leases are canceled and the area is permanently protected,” Barnes said. “This area is sacred to the Blackfeet people, and we appreciate that others are starting to recognize it as well.”

Devon Energy will receive a $206,058 refund on its bid for the land, half of which will be paid by Montana and half by the U.S. Treasury Department. Most of the other companies with leases have since taken advantage of tax incentives set up by Congress to relinquish their claims.

“We’d like to see policies continue the responsible development of (oil).” Hager said. “For Devon, cancellation of these leases at this time is simply the right thing to do.”

With Wednesday’s announcement only two leases remain with unknown owners.

None of the companies issued leases actually started drilling, so the area remains undisturbed.

Published in conjunction with the Great Falls Tribune