by Dylan Nelson
During the last three decades of the 20th century, the Little Rocky Mountains in north-central Montana were the site of a series of physical and ideological collisions that permanently reshaped their physical form and symbolic power. Located immediately south of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, home of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes, the Little Rockies once belonged to the Fort Belknap Indian Community. To many in that community, the mountains are sacred. They have been used for fasting and ceremonies for generations.
From 1979 to 1997, Pegasus Gold Corporation, a Canadian multinational mining company, operated an open-pit cyanide heap leach mining complex in the Little Rockies near the historic mining communities of Zortman and Landusky. The Little Rockies had been mined periodically since the end of the 19th century but at much smaller scales.
Beginning in 1979, Pegasus pioneered the cyanide heap leach technique, whose effects were mostly not known by scientists and engineers in the late 1970s. Throughout their tenure in the Little Rockies, Pegasus faced stiff opposition from the Fort Belknap Community as well as state and national environmental and cultural organizations. Throughout the 1980s, the mines operated mostly undisturbed but people at Fort Belknap grew increasingly wary of “all the activities on the other side of the mountain,” especially when wildlife allegedly began to suddenly and mysteriously drop dead and rumors of babies born with health defects circulated in the community.
In 1990, a grassroots organization based in the southeast corner of the reservation near Lodgepole called Red Thunder Incorporated began a legal campaign against the Pegasus mines. In the following years Red Thunder employed a variety of strategies to reclaim the Little Rocky Mountains and prevent pollution coming from the mines. Red Thunder activists used the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), passed by Congress in 1978, in an effort to protect "Sacred Fasting Sites & Places" that they saw as being under threat by a planned expansion of the mines. This involved collaborating with environmental lawyers, producing a documentary, holding an international indigenous environmental conference on the reservation, circulating petitions to state and federal authorities, and gathering support for their cause in places like Bozeman, Helena, and Boulder, Colorado. Throughout, the members of Red Thunder were guided by a spiritual vision that outlined how to maintain and relate to human and ecological communities. At the end of 1992, state regulatory agencies detected acid rock drainage (an outflow of acidic water from newly exposed bedrock that can persist for thousands of years) in water monitoring reports sent to them by Pegasus. Soon after, the Montana Department of Health and Environmental Sciences filed a lawsuit against Pegasus for their violation of the Montana Water Quality Act. Not long after that, the federal Environmental Protection Agency filed a similar suit for violations of the Clean Water Act.
The Fort Belknap Community Council, the Gros Ventre Tribe, the Assiniboine Tribe, and various organizations also pursued legal action. All of these groups would remain locked up in litigation for much of the 1990s until in 1996, a consent decree was signed by state, federal, and tribal governments and Pegasus that settled the clean water suits out of court. The consent decree required Pegasus to pay $37 million in civil penalties and provide other forms of injunctive relief. The settlement was made so that Pegasus could continue mining in the Little Rockies in ostensibly safer ways and pursue the expansion project that had been delayed by the court battle. After global gold prices reached record lows and managing some of their other mining projects proved burdensome, Pegasus declared bankruptcy at the end of 1997.
In 1998, Pegasus reorganized under the name Apollo Gold, which consolidated the corporation’s former holdings and abandoned their mines in the Little Rockies. Therefore, by the end of the 20th century, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) became entirely responsible for surface reclamation and water treatment in the Little Rockies. At that time, Fort Belknap residents implored the BLM and DEQ to return the Little Rockies to “pre-mining conditions.” Almost two decades later, that dream may have been abandoned.
Today, multiple peaks in the Little Rockies remain substantially defaced, the damage visible from miles away. Moreover, water treatment will be required in streams leading from mine drainages for potentially thousands of years, placing a burden on Montana taxpayers for centuries. From the south, many in the towns of Zortman and Landusky dream of a return of mining to the Little Rockies. On the north side of the mountains, people at Fort Belknap look toward their mountains with ambivalence but for many, the reminder of what the Little Rockies once were pushes them to build different futures.