been done along the Front,” he said. “We have a boatload of good new data for this whole area, thousands of acres of 3-D seismic work.” So perhaps this time would be different.
ater, as we drove out into the backcountry
toward the mountains, there were few signs of human life other than an isolated Hutterite farm colony and a cold war– era Minuteman nuclear missile silo, where some soldiers had piled out of a Humvee and appeared to be engaged in some kind of inspection. We saw capped wells and reclaimed wells and one working well with a nodding pump jack, a row of storage tanks, and a cluster of low buildings. “When a well like this is active,” Lindseth said, “you’ll have six guys working 12-hour shifts. They build a little home out here; one guy even put in a hot tub.” He was keen for me to appreciate the limited environmental footprint of the drilling operations, and it was true that several of the wells were set in dips and coulees, miles back from the Front and fairly inconspicuous. “We live in a pretty nice place here, and I guess it’s obvious we don’t want to ruin it,” he said. But another way of looking at the modest scale of the enterprise, I suggested, was that the bonanza they’d hoped for hadn’t really materialized. Well, Lindseth acknowledged, this was technically part of the Bakken formation, but while the oil deposits were closer to the surface than in the eastern part of the state and North Dakota, the geology was problematic. “It’s just difficult to get it out of these rocks,” he said. “Up to Highway 89 it’s all prairie soils, but you go four or five miles west and you start hitting the overthrust, and it’s much harder to drill.” Outside the tiny, half-abandoned town of Bynum we passed a hangarlike building surrounded by cranes, shipping containers, and modular metal frames twice the size of semi-trailers. As Lindseth explained what was going on here, it was clear that being at the crossroads of an oil boom involved more than the presence of a few modestly productive drill rigs. Two companies had set up shop in Bynum recently, he told me, one from Texas, the other from Mississippi. Their purpose was to construct giant drilling equipment for the tar sands. After all, why import it from Asia when you could build it right here, close to the Canadian border? The problem, he said, was that the companies, having promised to create hundreds of well-paying local jobs, were stymied by the delays in building the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands bitumen from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Absent that, he said, the big producers in Canada were skittish about signing too many contracts for future megaloads. As we drove west toward the Teton Canyon, the mood—Harold Yeager’s in particular—seemed to sour. This was more obviously beautiful country than the sere, undulating benchland we’d driven over earlier, and the area around the Yeager ranch was a patchwork of reminders of the intimate scale on which the battle over oil and gas development was being fought here. Ear Mountain, named for its distinctive shape, reared up ahead of us, defining the face of the Front. To the north side of the canyon road was Dusty Crary’s spread—Crary, whom I planned to meet later, being a leader of the fight to keep out the oil companies. A little to the south, next door to Yeager’s property, was the Durr Ranch, now owned by the Nature Conservancy. Nearby was the former home of A. B. “Bud” Guthrie Jr., author of the most famous book ever written about Montana, The Big Sky. Next to that, David Letterman’s Deep Creek Ranch, with its small herd of buffalo. 4 4 onearth s p r i n g 2 0 1 4
We reached Yeager’s place at last. As we pulled off the road, he pointed out a low butte to the east. This is famous dinosaur country, and one time, he said, he’d found part of a backbone entombed in a 1,000-pound chunk of rock. “My great-grandad came out here in 1876 and proved up the homestead, but the family wouldn’t join him at first,” he said. “It was the year of Custer’s last stand, and they thought we were still fighting the Indians. Later we had 1,600 head of cattle. Used to do a four-day trail up to the rez, sleeping on the ground, your eyes would be like mud pies in the morning.” A pugnacious little tan dog sprinted out into the yard to greet us, closely followed by three others. “I need ’em to drive off the bears,” Yeager said. “I had one in the kitchen door and another in the feed shed.” He gestured at the leader of the pack. “Most dogs will just bark at a bear,” he said, “but this female will launch herself straight at it.” He was visibly upset now. “We never used to have bears here when I was a kid,” he said. “And there are the elk. I mean, everyone likes the elk. But then they start moving into our hay grounds and wheat fields.” Federal protection of the Front has allowed charismatic species like these to range freely again across the prairie lands and river bottoms, just as they did in the days of Lewis and Clark. When ranchers agreed to conservation easements on their property, that made things worse, Yeager complained. “You read some of the terms of these easements,” he said, “you can’t hardly go out behind the barn to take a leak.” His grumbling expanded to take in the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act and federal regulations in general and wildlife organizations that prowled the streets of New York raising millions of dollars from gullible rich people. “What’s our biggest problem in this country?” he asked. “Ninety percent of people would say the government.” And before long, inevitably it seemed, we’d moved on to Obamacare.
arold yeager and dan
the oil companies have been in and out of the Blackfeet Reservation for decades, but it’s always been a story of boomlet and bust
Lindseth have been pushing oil and gas development on the Front for a decade, but Gene Sentz has been fighting it for almost four. I went to visit Sentz at his home in Choteau, a modest house on a quiet street, painted the color of a robin’s egg. Like Lindseth and Yeager, Sentz is in his seventies. He has a dense white beard, a genial manner that disguises a good amount of steely obstinacy, and the remnants of a West Virginia twang. He came to Choteau in 1970 to take a seasonal job as a wilderness ranger. “They gave me a horse and a mule and a map and sent me out there,” he said. He loved it, and stayed. Yet despite living here for close to half a century, working for most of that time as a backcountry horse packer, his background still causes some locals to regard him as an outsider. He did a stint in the Peace Corps, then worked as a schoolteacher. His wife, Linda, is a nurse. They met in Nepal. Sentz and a local taxidermist named Roy Jacobs, whose fa-