Concerns about Blackfeet and Badger-Two Medicine Co-Management

The rugged peaks of the Badger-Two Medicine area on the Helena and Clark National Forest, Montana. Photo by George Wuerthner

The recent article in High Country News on legislation to protect the Badger-Two Medicine area on the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest with co-management by the Blackfeet tribe has significant factual errors and implications for management of all public lands.

The Badger-Two Medicine, a rugged 130,000-acre area on the Rocky Mountain Front just south of Glacier National Park, is adjacent to the Blackfeet Reservation. It is a spectacular mountain wildland that is part of our national heritage. It deserves the best protection of our legal system affords which is designated wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Unfortunately, the current legislation falls short.

For decades conservationists, along with some Blackfeet tribal members, have advocated wilderness designation for the area. And lest we forget, the Badger-Two Medicine is also the home of many other species that are voiceless, which would benefit from wilderness designation.

Wilderness designation would protect the wildlands and wildlife. Plus, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 protects Native Americans’ rights to exercise their traditional religions by ensuring access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonies and traditional rites. Also, other treaty obligations such as access for hunting, fishing, gathering firewood, etc. are already guaranteed and could continue under wilderness designation.

The proposed Badger-Two Medicine Protection Act, which would designate the landscape as a “cultural heritage area”. A cultural heritage area would be a new federal designation that would be an improvement over the current Forest Service management options. As proposed, the Act would explicitly ban things like commercial logging, oil and gas development, mountain bikes, and permanent roads.

Over the years, the goal of many people has been to protect the Badger-Two Medicine’s wild character and wildlife. It is possible that the Blackfeet co-management will advance wildlands protection. But anyone concerned about democracy as well as providing wildlife and wildlands maximum protection should consider the long-term implications of this legislation.

I have no insights as to why the tribe might be against wilderness designation. But there are reasons to ask questions about motivations.

The legislation permits “vegetation” management for “forest health,” which is the primary justification for all logging today. Even though “commercial” logging is banned, will we see logging done under the guise of “forest health”? It also directs that grazing “shall” continue, meaning there is no opportunity to remove livestock from the area. The Act also requires the hiring of tribal members for any “management” actions in the area. This could be easily be abused, using jobs as a justification for unnecessary actions like “vegetation management.”

South Fork of Two Medicine River, Helena Lewis and Clark NF. Photo by George Wuerthner

Although the legislation would appear to have strong sidebars explicitly banning things like commercial logging, such restrictions are only effective if they are enforced. My concern is who is going to enforce such regulations if the tribe violates them? Certainly not environmental organizations who have fallen all over themselves to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and concern for environmental justice (as defined by Anthropocene promoters).

However, my most significant concern about the legislation is the preference it bestows upon the Blackfeet for management. These public lands belong to all Americans, including other tribal people from across America. The tribe ceded the Badger-Two Medicine area to the US government in 1895 in exchange for $1.5 million in payment ($46,644,069) in today’s dollars) and the continued right to hunt, fish, and cut timber. The ceded lands were added to what is now the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest and a portion later became part of Glacier National Park.

View of Badger -Medicine from Elk Calf Mountain. Helena Lewis and Clark NF. Photo by George Wuerthner

Legislating greater decision-making influence by any group of people such as the Blackfeet tribe potentially threatens the democratic regulatory process that should protect these lands.

Part of the justification for Blackfeet preference is the notion that the tribe has resided along the Rocky Mountain Front since time “immemorial” as often stated by tribal members and repeated by the media and others. The author of the High Country News article accepted this version of history and suggests the tribe’s residency in a place gives one special preference in the management of public lands. It is the same justification used by ranchers, loggers, and others who have lived in a place for generations.

The article goes into detail about the US government’s various measures, which gradually shrank the size of the Blackfeet reservation. But like most reporting, the piece neglects to mention that the Blackfeet took the lands they now control from other native peoples.

The Blackfeet, like most tribal people, were almost always in continuous motion until Europeans came up with the idea of reserved lands that ended the mobility. Where tribes were located in historical times is not where they have always dwelled. The Blackfeet are recent colonizers of the plains of Montana.

In the distant past, the Blackfeet were members of the Algonquin woodland people and resided in eastern Canada. They gradually moved westward over many centuries. Hudson Bay Company trading records show that by the mid-1700s, the tribe was living on the Saskatchewan prairies.

The tribe reached the Red Deer River of Alberta by the late 1780s, and a contingent of the tribe (Piegan) ventured south into Montana about the same time or early 1800s. While the tribe’s residency in what is now Montana is several hundred years more or less, it is not particularly longer than the advance guard of American trappers who frequented the same territory.

By the late 1700s, French Canadian fur traders were mingling with tribes on the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. The Lewis and Clark expedition crossed the same landscape in 1805-1806.

As Chris Ashby in his master’s thesis on the Blackfeet land concessions observed the idea of long residency in the Badger-Two Medicine/Glacier Park area may have been a publicity stunt by the Northern Pacific Railroad. “Publicity efforts by the Great Northern Railroad were intended to emphasize a close relationship between the Blackfeet and the park. The purpose of these efforts was quite likely to create an interest in the area and to attract tourists. This is a likely reason since the Great Northern Railroad not only operated the main form of transportation to and from the Park, but also the hotels within the Park. As colorful as such an association might seem, it is misleading in that it has caused many people, including numerous Blackfeet, to believe that the Blackfeet Indians were in the vicinity of Glacier National Park a long enough time to make the claim that the current Blackfeet Reservation is the ancestral home, and that the park area has played a major part in the cultural and religious traditions of the Blackfeet.^ However many experts believe that the Blackfeet were not the original inhabitants of the plains to the east of Glacier National Park, but came to reside in the area quite recently.”

Furthermore, the Blackfeet, displaced other tribal people who were already residing in the area. With the added benefit of firearms obtained from the Hudson Bay Company traders which were not yet available to the tribes residing south of what is now the Canadian border, the Blackfeet were able to rout the Kootenai tribe who lived along the shores of the Waterton Lakes in Alberta, and the Flathead tribe which lived along Rocky Mountain Front. Both tribes were forced to vacate lands they occupied and move beyond the Continental Divide into western Montana and northern Idaho, likely displacing other people who were residing on these lands.

This raises one more fundamental issue about why the Blackfeet should be given additional oversight of the Badger-Two Medicine when it was equally important to other groups like the Flathead and Kootenai tribes. Worse, giving a greater voice to one subgroup of Americans undermines equality, democracy, science, and the 330 million-plus other Americans in theory owners of these lands.

The article goes to great length to note that the Blackfeet opposed oil and gas leasing of the Badger-Two Medicine area—and one is left to presume this is due to some inherent environmental ethic. However, the assumption that the Blackfeet will treat the area with ecological sensitivity cannot be assumed.

The author failed to note that the Blackfeet have leased most of their reservation for fracking. Forests on tribal lands are clearcut right up to the border of Glacier Park. Livestock regularly trash riparian areas. And wildlife anywhere on the reservation is often shot without regard to any limitations.

Clearcuts on the Blackfeet Reservation mark the border of Glacier National Park, Montana. Photo by George Wuerthner

One hopes that if the tribe is given co-management of the area, they will treat these public lands better than they treat their reservation lands. However, the way to assure that this will happen is by designating the area a wilderness area. A “cultural heritage” area is an untested designation and may not guarantee full protection of the landscape.

The Badger-Two Medicine needs to be protected for all Americans (and the voiceless wildlife that depends on these lands) and even the Blackfeet tribe. The Badger-Two Medicine legislation, as now written, is culture-based management.

Our wildlands deserve the administrative, legal, and scientific accountability provided by the Wilderness Act which is the “Gold Standard” for conservation. . Wilderness designation ensures that all Americans have an equal voice over management of these wildlands.

Designation of the Badger-Two Medicine as wilderness would protect many of the tribal interests such as opportunities for hunting, fishing, and protection of cultural resources, but it would go further by protecting the other fellow travelers residing on the Earth besides just humans who don’t have a seat at the table. Wilderness designation recognizes their interests as well.


  1. Lonna O'Leary Avatar
    Lonna O’Leary

    Good informative article George. You are such a good source of good information on so many of the issues that our wilderness and wildlife face today. After reading one of your articles, I always feel like I now have a more complete understanding of that particular issue that includes information that I would’ve learned if I hadn’t read your articles. Thank you for bringing to light so many good points in your articles.

    1. Lonna O'Leary Avatar
      Lonna O’Leary

      I’m sorry that was supposed to say “information that I never would’ve learned if I hadn’t read your article.

  2. Lonna O'Leary Avatar
    Lonna O’Leary

    I’m sorry that was supposed to say “information that I never would’ve learned if I hadn’t read your article.

  3. Clifford Bove Avatar
    Clifford Bove

    Spot on article!!!

  4. Joseph McKay Avatar
    Joseph McKay

    Your post has its own share of factual and legal errors. The history relied upon as to supposed Blackfeet Migration has been proven wrong by archaelogical efforts including excavation of a site on Cut Bank Creek 5 miles north of Browning which the archaelogist dated at about 2,000 years old and was where (according to the archaeologist) Blackfeet Hunters had killed and processed a buffalo bull. In attempt to support the false theory that the Blackfeet migrated to the present territory, Glacier Park commissioned a study by professionals from Calgary Alberta. They studied the archaelogical, anthripological and ethnological evidence and concluded that the Blackfeet and our ancestors have been on this landscape in Northern Montana and Southern Alberta for between 5,000 and 10,000 years. Glaceir Park has since excavated sites in the park and dated them to 5,000 years and connected them to the Blackfeet People. The late Paul Raczka in his book “A Blackfoot History; the Winter Counts”, takes on the false Ewers theory that the Blackfeet migrated from the midwest to the present location. While the Blackfeet signed an agreement saying that they would get $1.5 million (about $11.40 cents an acre) for the 130,000 acres, in fact the government offset that money for goods already provided to the Blackfeet (something that they never told our ancestors that they were going to do). Our ancestors never saw the $1,5 million. I could go on for while about the factual and legal errors of your post, but one final thought: the whiteman’s concept of “wilderness” is a flawed philosphy itself. It is based in the false premise that human beings did not occupy and manage the landscape that is the United States and North America since “the beginning of time” – certainly for thousands of years before the arrival of European colonizers. I am an enrolled Blackfeet Nation member, a lifetime resident of the Blackfeet Reservation. I am one of those who oppose “wilderness” designation. However, I also opposes the Badger Two Medicine Protection Act as it elevates the interests of others over the interests of the Blackfeet People. Should you ever wish to have a discussion of this matter in person (telephonically or video), you know how to get in touch with me.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner