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BILLINGS — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is urging the Interior Department to continue its fight against energy development on land in northwestern Montana considered sacred to some Native Americans, after the government dropped a court appeal in the matter.

Several Blackfeet tribal organizations and affiliates also filed court briefs asking the federal government maintain its opposition to all the contested energy leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area south of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

In a letter released Friday, the Democratic lawmaker accused Interior Secretary David Bernhardt of undermining the Blackfeet Nation's attempts to prevent drilling in the Badger Two-Medicine area.

“I am deeply disappointed in your recent actions,” Tester wrote to Bernhardt. “These actions represent a troubling abdication of DOI’s responsibility and disregard for the opinions of both the Blackfeet Nation and Montanans. I urge you to uphold the Department’s promises to the Blackfeet Nation and all Montanans and rejoin the efforts to defend Badger-Two Medicine from unwanted development.”

The 10-square-mile area bordering Glacier National Park is the site of the Blackfeet creation story. Most oil and gas leases in the area, issued in the 1980s, have since been canceled by federal officials. Two of the leaseholders, Solenex LLC and Moncrief Oil, sued the government to reassert their claims. Both the Obama administration and the Trump administration under former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke opposed the leases.

But under Bernhardt, officials last month reversed course and dropped the government's appeal of the Moncrief leases that were still in dispute. They are still challenging the Solenex claim. Agency officials have declined to explain the move.

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"It's bad enough that Secretary Bernhardt and the Department of Interior has gone back on its word to defend the Badger-Two Medicine and Blackfeet interests," said Tyson Running Wolf, a member of both the Pikuni Traditionalist Association and the Horn Society. "Now, they're trying to silence the voice of the Blackfeet and prevent us from defending ourselves." 

Those two groups were joined by Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, Montana Wilderness Association, National Parks Conservation Association and The Wilderness Society as intervenors in the lawsuit. The Blackfeet tribal government is not a party to the lawsuit, but has submitted friend-of-the-court briefs. 

Missoulian reporter Rob Chaney contributed to this story.

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