BILLINGS, Mont. – U.S. officials cancelled 15 oil and gas leases on Wednesday in an area bordering Glacier National Park that's considered sacred to the Blackfoot tribes of the U.S. and Canada.
The cancellation was aimed at preserving the Badger-Two Medicine area, a largely-undeveloped, 130,000-acre wilderness that is the site of the creation story for members of Montana's Blackfeet Nation and the Blackfoot tribes of Canada.
"It should not have been leased to begin with," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in announcing the cancellations at her agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "This sets the right tone for how business should be done in the future."
Details on the cancellation were obtained by The Associated Press in advance of the announcement.
The move comes amid sometimes-violent protests over an oil pipeline being built in North Dakota near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The Obama administration has been criticized by some American Indians over its handling of the matter, and federal officials have sought to reduce tensions by saying they would consider re-routing the pipeline.
Jewell said the leasing and pipeline disputes bear similarities: In both cases, she said, federal officials made decisions without sufficient input from tribal members who had cultural concerns.
Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes said the pipeline protests and his tribe's decades-long effort to block development in the Badger-Two Medicine reinforce the need for closer cooperation between the government and tribes.
"Hey, this ain't working. How do we find a better way to consult with the aboriginal people and inhabitants?" Barnes said as he stood beside Jewell on Wednesday. "The Blackfeet tribe has never been opposed to oil and gas exploration. We are opposed to oil and gas exploration on our sacred sites."
The 15 cancelled oil and gas leases on almost 23,000 acres were issued in the early 1980s and held by Oklahoma-based Devon Energy, according to Interior officials.
Interior officials said they were sold without proper consultations with tribal leaders. Another energy lease in the same area was canceled by federal officials earlier this year.
No drilling has occurred and the cancellation was made in cooperation with Devon executives.
Devon President David Hager said the cancellation "was the right thing to do." It entitles the company to a refund of $206,000 for fees associated with the lease purchase.
Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said the company deserved credit for its willingness to relinquish the leases in an area that's prime habitat for grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, elk and other wildlife.
In March, federal officials canceled a 6,200-acre lease in the Badger-Two-Medicine that was held by Solenex LLC. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, company has been seeking to drill for gas in the area for the past several years. It has challenged the government's decision in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
Two oil and gas leases remain in the area.
Federal officials plan to address the remaining leases, but they have been unable to contact their owners, Interior spokeswoman Amanda DeGroff said.
Efforts to cancel those leases would continue, Barnes said.