Tag Archives: montana

32,000 oil, gas leases retired in sacred Badger-Two Medicine wilderness area

The U.S. Department of the Interior and Devon Energy on Nov. 16 announced retirement of more than 32,000 acres of oil and gas leases from the Badger-Two Medicine roadless area.

The move comes on the heels of a lease cancellation by the Department of the Interior and echoes the call by many that the Badger-Two Medicine region — a vital wildland link connecting the Bob Marshall Wilderness with Glacier National Park and an indispensable stronghold of Blackfeet culture — should not be industrialized by roads, bridges and drill rigs.

At a ceremony, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said, “The cancellation of leases that were set many years ago in an area that should never have had leases to begin with. This is the right action to take on behalf of current and future generations.”

“One of the core values that we have is to be a good neighbor. We certainly think this is a great opportunity to demonstrate the fact that we can be a good neighbor in this situation,” added Devon Energy president and CEO Dave Hager.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.,  also spoke at the ceremony. “There are special places in this world where we just shouldn’t drill, and the Badger-Two Medicine is one of those places. This region carries great cultural and historical significance to the Blackfeet Tribe and today’s announcement will ensure that the Badger-Two Medicine will remain pristine for both the Tribe and the folks who love to hunt, hike, and fish near Glacier Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.”

Conservation groups cheered the announcement.

“It’s incredibly satisfying, after all these decades of conflict and controversy, to see the players negotiating in good faith to find a solution,” said Kendall Flint, president of the local conservation group, Glacier — Two Medicine Alliance. The alliance has long sought retirement of the leases, which were sold for just $1 per acre more than 30 years ago.

The 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine is part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest and is bordered by Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

The Department of the Interior under Secretary James Watt, appointed by Ronald Reagan, granted the leases in the early 1980s, sparking immediate and prolonged opposition from local residents, conservationists and the Blackfeet Nation.

Other companies also have voluntarily retired more than 110,000 acres of Badger-Two Medicine leases.

Two smaller leases remain, according to the Interior Department. Efforts continue to negotiate their retirement.

Efforts to protect the Badger-Two Medicine wildland also have involved the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, National Congress of American Indians, Glacier County Commissioners, retired Glacier National Park superintendents, retired U.S. Forest Service and BLM leadership, hunting and angling groups, local ranchers and residents, and even the rock band Pearl Jam.

“This is a landmark moment in the decades-long battle to protect the Badger-Two Medicine region, and future generations will be even more thankful for it than we are today,” said Tim Preso of Earthjustice.  “But the fight is not over.  We will continue to advocate for this wild, sacred landscape until the last threat to its integrity is removed.”

The 1980s-era leases have long stood in stark contrast to a legacy of conservation throughout Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front region. Beginning with the establishment of Glacier National Park in 1910 and bolstered by creation of the Sun River Game Preserve in 1913, conservation measures have since included: the creation of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (1932); Sun River Wildlife Management Area (1948); Bob Marshall Wilderness Area (1964); Scapegoat Wilderness Area (1972); Great Bear Wilderness Area (1978); and passage of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act (2014).

Within the boundaries of the Badger-Two Medicine roadless area, recent conservation measures include a 2006 congressional ban on any future federal oil/gas leasing and a 2011 prohibition on motorized travel. The entire Badger-Two Medicine region has been designated a “Traditional Cultural District” under the National Historic Preservation Act, in recognition of its importance to Blackfeet tradition and culture.

2 cocker spaniels re-enact ‘The Incredible Journey’

After spending almost two weeks in July wandering on their own deep into Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, Jim Cain’s two English cocker spaniels seem to have recovered from their re-enactment of The Incredible Journey.

“There’s no sign of any lasting problems,” Cain said. “But since they’ve done that they don’t pass up a meal. You put a bowl of food down and they’re on it. And they stick a little closer to home now.”

Abby, 11, is the mother to Molly, who is 6 or 7 years old. And their tale of getting lost in the 1 million-acre wilderness and then found is one that the people involved won’t soon forget.

“It was pretty bizarre,” said Sonny Mazzullo, who works for the Montana Wilderness Association as a Continental Divide Trail field coordinator. “It’s definitely one of the most unusual things to happen to me in the backcountry.”

BACKCOUNTRY DIRTy WORK

In July, Mazzullo had a crew of staff and volunteers working on a section of the CDT near Bowl Creek repairing a rotted out turnpike — an elevated trail that crosses swampland. The crew was five days into a nine-day hitch about 11 to 12 miles deep into the wilderness when Abby and Molly came walking down the trail.

“No one thought too much of seeing the two dogs. Everyone figured the owners would be trailing along shortly,” wrote Ted Brewer, MWA’s communications director, in a blog post. “They never showed.”

“After 10 minutes we started fearing the worst, that the dogs had wandered away,” said Mazzullo. “After 20 minutes we figured nobody was coming with them.”

Judging by the cuts on the dogs’ feet and bodies, their thinness, exhaustion, hunger and thirst, the crew figured the dogs had been on the trail for some time.

“They looked haggard,” Mazzullo said.

DOG PACKER

Since the dogs were too exhausted to walk any farther and camp was about 2 miles away from the work site, backcountry horseman and packer Greg Schatz used some of the bags the crew was using to haul gravel to carry the dogs back to camp on his horse, Dusty.

In his 27 years of trekking into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Schatz has often carried unusual things on his pack horses and mules — everything from bridge timbers to wheelbarrows, fire hose to scaffold — but he said he’s probably never carried anything more unusual than the pair of dogs.

“They were in such tough shape that they couldn’t walk,” he said. “They were finished.”

Then the concern arose that the dogs’ owners may have been injured and that a search and rescue operation might be necessary. Luckily, Molly still had her collar on and a tag that had a phone number.

“Crew co-leader Nick Burkland radioed the Schaefer Meadows Ranger Station and reported finding the dogs,” Brewer wrote. “The ranger called the number on Molly’s dog tag and later reported back that he had reached the dogs’ owners.”

Long potty break

Turns out that Cain had let the dogs out on July 2 to do their morning business while staying at his wife’s family cabin on the West Fork of the Teton River. The area is located northwest of Choteau along the Rocky Mountain Front. An hour later, there was no sign of the two black pooches.

Worried, Cain said his family contacted everyone they could think of: the county sheriff, Forest Service and the newspaper in Great Falls. They even offered a $500 reward and spent the rest of their vacation at the cabin driving up and down the road and checking trails in the area.

“We’re quite the dog people,” Cain said, noting that altogether they have eight canines at their Conrad home. “Those two really love to go outdoors. They’re field dogs. They’re used to running around.”

But after a week of looking and with no leads, he said the chance of ever seeing the dogs again seemed hopeless.

TOUGH TERRAIN

How the dogs ended up crossing the Continental Divide 12 to 13 miles from the cabin is uncertain. Did they chase an animal and lose their way, or maybe follow other hikers or a pack train?

Schatz described the terrain between the cabin and work site as “extremely rocky,” littered with downfall and dense brush. What’s more, the dogs would have crossed the Rocky Mountain Front, known to the Blackfeet Tribe as the backbone of the world. The trail crew went over 7,200-foot high Teton Pass — an elevation gain of about 1,600 feet above Cain’s cabin. Whether the dogs followed that trail or clambered over the Lewis and Clark mountain range somewhere else — places with names like Corrugate Ridge or Washboard Reef — is unknown.

“I was shocked that the dogs, which are not backcountry dogs, had made it as far as they did, and with no dog food,” Schatz said. “They probably had 200 miles on them.”

The area is so remote that Mazzullo said during the trail crew’s stay they only saw two other backpackers the whole time, with the exception of the Forest Service and horse-packers who were scheduled to come in.

TRAIL NURSES

With Cain unable to retrieve the dogs from the wilderness, the trail crew took turns staying with the pups until work near Bowl Creek was finished. Mazzullo said he always carries a two-man tent into the wilderness, just in case someone else needs a place to stay.

“I made room for the ladies,” he joked.

With temperatures staying cool, Abby was constantly shaking, Mazzullo said.

When the work on the Bowl Creek turnpike was done, the trail crew wasn’t quite sure how they could get the dogs out, since their feet were still hurting. Carrying the 30-pound dogs in their arms wasn’t practical. So the idea was hatched to cut down long logs and hang the gravel bags in the middle to give the dogs a place to ride out. The volunteers would take turns carrying the logs on their shoulder.

“After about 5 miles, I was thinking we might have been able to get by with smaller logs,” Mazzullo said.

Molly only stayed in her hammock about two miles before she scrambled free. But Abby — the older dog — was happy to make the trip out on the shoulders of the workers.

TRAILHEAD REUNION

Cain’s wife Traci was waiting at the trailhead to greet the workers, snapping pictures and cuddling the long-lost pooches. She insisted the volunteers take the reward money, which the crew donated to the MWA and its Continental Divide Trail program.

“You could tell right away that the dogs were really happy,” Mazzullo said. “That was a good feeling. We had gotten pretty attached to them.”

Cain still can’t thank the volunteers enough.

“Mom was pretty shell-shocked,” he said of the older dog, Abby. “If they hadn’t met that trail crew she wouldn’t have made it.”

Looking back on the incident, Mazzullo is philosophical.

“The thing that’s cool about the story is that it’s a reflection of the good hearts that our volunteers have,” he said. “Our volunteers are terrific.”

Published via the AP member exchange.

Atheists’ case against ‘Big Mountain Jesus’ goes before federal appeals court

The home for a 6-foot-statue known as Big Mountain Jesus rests with a three-judge appeals panel after a lawyer representing a group of atheists asked for it to be removed from U.S. Forest Service property in Montana.

A federal district judge in 2013 said the Flathead National Forest could reissue a 10-year permit for the statue that has stood along a ski run at the Whitefish Mountain Resort since 1954. The judge, Obama appointee Dana Christensen, said no reasonable observer would conclude the Forest Service was endorsing Christianity by permitting a private party to place it on land it leases from the government.

In hopes of getting the decision reversed, attorney Rich Bolton told the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel on July 7 that the statue violates the constitutional prohibition on Congress making any law regarding an establishment of religion.

He said the private ownership of the statue does not trump the constitution’s Establishment Clause: “The question is whether there’s a perception of religious endorsement.”

Bolton maintained that there is, and he said the Forest Service only granted the permit to quell public outcry after word spread in 2011 that the statue might be removed.

Bolton came under sharp questioning from one of the judges, N. Randy Smith, who seemed skeptical of whether the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has standing in the case. He asked Bolton which particular member of the group has been harmed by the Forest Service’s decision.

Bolton answered that a Montana-based foundation member, Pamela Morris, would like to ski at Big Mountain but has avoided it for decades since encountering the Jesus statue as a teenager.

Smith countered that the statue is only visible from a small portion of the resort and it’s possible to ski all day without seeing it.

“In other words, there’s no reason to even avoid it,” the judge said. “She has to go specifically looking for it.”

“That’s not true, your honor,” Bolton said.

“Well, that’s what the evidence says,” Smith replied.

The Knights of Columbus put up the statue to memorialize soldiers who died while fighting during World War II. The returning veterans who built it were inspired by the mountain shrines and statues they saw during their service in Italy.

U.S. Justice Department attorney Joan Pepin said the Forest Service acted with neutrality and approved the permit because the statue has local historical significance. She told the judges that the statue is primarily a meeting place, a photo backdrop and a “quirky local landmark,” a reminder of how the city of Whitefish used to be.

“It’s usually wearing a ski helmet,” she said of the statue. “There’s nothing about its context that suggests devotion is encouraged.”

The judges gave no indication of when they might rule.

Montana pipeline break spills oil into Yellowstone River

Truckloads of drinking water were being shipped to the eastern Montana city of Glendive this week after traces of a major oil spill along the Yellowstone River were detected in public water supplies, raising concerns about a potential health risk.

Preliminary tests at the city’s water treatment plant indicated that at least some oil got into a water supply intake along the river, according to state and federal officials. About 6,000 people are served by the intake, Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison said.

Officials stressed that they were bringing in the shipments of drinking water as a precaution and did not know yet whether there was any health threat. Results of further tests to determine the scope of the danger were expected in coming days.

Up to 50,000 gallons of oil spilled in the pipeline accident on Jan. 17. Cleanup crews trying to recover the spilled crude were hampered by ice that covered most of the river, making it hard to find the oil.

Initial tests of water supplies over the weekend revealed no evidence of oil. But by late on Jan. 18, residents began complaining that the water coming from their taps had an unusual odor, officials said.

An advisory against ingesting water from the city’s treatment plant was issued late Jan. 19. After hearing about it, Glendive resident Ed Miller, 67, picked up an extra gallon of water from the fast-dwindling supplies at a convenience store.

Miller hadn’t noticed any odors from his own tap water. But his neighbors had, and Miller said he wouldn’t be drinking any city water until the advisory was lifted.

Glendive City Councilman Gerald Reichert said he first noticed an odor in the water at his house the night of Jan. 18. He said it smelled like diesel fuel.

Officials with Bridger Pipeline LLC of Casper, Wyoming, have said the break in the 12-inch steel pipe happened in an area about 5 miles upstream from Glendive, an agricultural community in east-central Montana near the North Dakota border.

Bridger spokesman Bill Salvin said the company is confident that no more than 1,200 barrels — or roughly 50,000 gallons —of oil spilled during the hour-long breach.

An oil sheen was seen near Sidney, almost 60 river miles downstream from Glendive, said Paul Peronard, the on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Booms were being placed in areas of open water to try and trap oil. Near Crane, which is about 30 miles downstream from the spill, crews were chopping holes into the ice in hopes that they will be able to vacuum up crude as it comes down the river in coming days.

“These are horrible working conditions to try to recover oil,” Peronard said. “Normally you at least see it, but you can’t see it, you can’t smell it. … We’re going to have to hunt and peck through ice to get it out,” Peronard said.

Bridger Pipeline crews were still working on Jan. 19 to determine exactly where the breach occurred.

If it happened on the bank, some of the oil may be trapped in the soil near the river. If it was beneath the river, “then it’s all in the river,” Peronard said.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock toured the spill site Jan. 19. He said he expected Bridger to continue its cleanup efforts “until it’s cleaned up to our standards.”

“The water’s a concern,” Bullock said. “I expect Bridger to continue and provide all the resources needed.”

The Poplar Pipeline system runs from Canada to Baker, Montana, and carries crude oil from the Bakken oil producing region in Montana and North Dakota. It remained shut down Monday while crews planned to pump out any remaining oil from the section of the pipeline where the breach occurred.

The pipeline receives oil at the Poplar Station in Roosevelt County, Fisher and Richey stations in Richland County, and at Glendive in Dawson County, all in Montana. It was last inspected in 2012, Salvin said, and is at least 8 feet below the Yellowstone River bed where it crosses the river near Glendive.

Bridger Pipeline, a subsidiary of True Cos., also owns and operates the Four Bears Pipeline System in North Dakota along with the Parshall Gathering System and the Powder River System in Wyoming, according to the company’s website.

Bridge Pipeline Vice President Tad True said the company apologizes for the spill and has taken responsibility for the cleanup.

The company will not be able to restart the pipeline until it receives approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Inspectors from the federal agency were at the spill and also planned to inspect Bridger Pipeline’s control room in Casper, Wyoming, to gather more information, PHMSA spokeswoman Susan Lagana said.

Gay couples exchange vows in Montana

As they stood linking arms and holding bouquets, Linda Gryczan and Constance Enzweiler of Helena married on Nov. 20 after waiting 31 years.

They were the first same-sex couple in the city to legally wed after a federal judge overturned Montana’s ban on same-sex marriage the day before.

“We’ve been married for 31 years in our hearts. The next 31 we’ll be married in the state,” Gryczan said.

Gryczan has a history with Montana gay rights issues. She was the lead plaintiff in a 1995 lawsuit challenging a separate state law that made gay sex illegal. That led to the unanimous 1997 Montana Supreme Court decision that ruled the law unconstitutional.

She had kind words on Nov. 20 for two plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to Wednesday’s ruling on the voter-approved ban. Adel Johnson and Sue Hawthorne were married in Washington state but came to the courthouse to celebrate.

“Thank you, thank you, for sticking your necks out,” Gryczan told them.

Former Montana Supreme Court Justice James C. Nelson married Gryczan and Enzweiler and said he supports the ruling by U.S. District Judge Brian Morris to throw out the ban, calling it a stain on the state’s constitution.

“I can’t tell you how big a decision that is,” he said. “It basically says that gay people have the same rights as everybody else, as they always should have.”

Statewide, 47 same-sex couples from 13 counties received marriage licenses on Nov. 20, said Jon Ebelt with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Randi Paul and Jill Houk of Billings lined up for theirs before dawn at the Yellowstone County Courthouse. Less than two hours later – and just minutes after paying $53 for a license – they wed in a courthouse hallway as friends, supporters and members of the media crowded around.

For Paul, a 28-year-old legal assistant, the occasion marked the realization of a dream of getting married in her home state.

“I’m a super Montanan. That’s a big part of who I am. The prospect of getting married somewhere else was upsetting,” she said.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox is appealing the ruling, but won’t seek an immediate stay to block same-sex marriages while the case is pending. His spokesman, John Barnes, said the state was waiting for a San Francisco-based federal appeals court to set a schedule for the case.

Some couples said they were eager to say their vows in case Fox’s appeal prevails.

Danielle Egnew, a 45-year-old Billings musician, said she and Rebecca Douglas, 44, wanted to marry “in a positive legal climate.” She said the two already have a date for a larger ceremony – Sept. 15 – but were exchanging vows Thursday to be safe.

Montana, Kansas and South Carolina have continued their legal fight against gay marriage despite rulings in favor of the practice from federal appeals courts that oversee them.

In South Carolina, Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson said he would fight to uphold the state’s constitutional ban even though the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday denied his emergency request to block gay marriages being performed there.

The first licenses were issued Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina, and a lesbian couple exchanged vows on the courthouse steps.

Wilson noted the nation’s top court has not yet resolved conflicting rulings by federal appeals courts. He said a decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding gay marriage bans in several Midwest states means the matter likely will go to the high court.

Amy Wagner, 56, and Karen Langebeck, 48, of Livingston were among the first Montana couples to get their license after spending 22 years together.

“Being able to get married and introduce Karen as my wife – that’s a big deal,” Wagner said. “Now I have a way to describe this relationship that everybody understands.”

Judge overturns Montana’s ban on gay marriage

The U.S. District Court of Montana ruled on Nov. 19 in favor of four same-sex couples suing for marriage rights.

“Calling Tonya my partner, my significant other, my girlfriend, my perpetual fiancée has never done justice to our relationship. Now I can look forward to the day when I can introduce Tonya as my wife,” said Angie Rolando, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “Love won today.”

District Court Judge Brian Morris ruled that Montana’s constitutional amendment limiting marriage to between a man and a woman violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In September, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled in a unanimous opinion that Idaho and Nevada’s bans on marriage for same-sex couples are unconstitutional. Montana is part of Ninth Circuit and Judge Morris cited the Circuit Court’s opinion in his ruling.

“These families, like all of us, want their children to adventure into the world without fear of violence; to achieve all that their talent and perseverance allows without fear of discrimination; and to love themselves so that they can love others,” Morris wrote in the decision. “No family wants to deprive its precious children of the chance to marry the loves of their lives. Montana no longer can deprive Plaintiffs and other same-sex couples of the chance to marry their loves.”

“This case is about equality and basic fairness,” says ACLU of Montana legal director Jim Taylor. “The courts have recognized that there is no legitimate basis on which to deny the right to marry to committed same-sex couples. All Montanans have an equal right to the legal protections and respect that marriage brings. This ruling takes that constitutional principle of equal protection and makes it a reality in Montana.”

Couples in the ACLU lawsuit challenging Montana’s marriage amendment are Angie and Tonya Rolando of Great Falls, Shauna and Nicole Goubeaux of Billings, Ben Milano and Chase Weinhandl of Bozeman and Sue Hawthorne and Adel Johnson of Helena. Angie and Tonya Rolando are seeking to get married in Montana and the other three couples are seeking to have marriages from other states recognized by Montana.

“Montana is no longer left in the cold. It joins the ranks of states where all committed, loving couples can marry,” says Elizabeth Gill, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project. “This brings marriage equality to 35 states and counting.”

In addition to Taylor and Gill, the couples are represented by Ben Alke and James Goetz of Goetz, Gallik & Baldwin P.C.; and Stuart Plunkett, Ruth Borenstein, Ariel Ruiz, and Emily Regier of the law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP.

“It’s a great day for Montana” says ACLU of Montana Executive Director Scott Crichton. “The ACLU has worked for decades to ensure the rights of LGBT people are protected and respected. We’re humbled to be part of this history-making moment.”

3 states battle to keep same-sex marriage bans

Three states are continuing their legal fight against same-sex marriage, despite rulings from federal appeals courts that oversee those states that concluded gay and lesbian couples have the right to marry.

Even as officials in other states have abandoned defense of gay marriage bans, Kansas, Montana and South Carolina are refusing to allow same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses without a court order directing them to do so. It could be another month or more before the matter is settled.

In a political campaign debate earlier this week, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback vowed to defend his state’s constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. A federal court hearing is scheduled for Friday was postponed.

There seems little doubt that U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree ultimately will set aside the state’s gay marriage ban. That’s because the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, encompassing Kansas and five other states, has said a state may not deny a marriage license to two people of the same sex.

“He is absolutely bound and has to make that decision,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign.

The same requirement holds true for federal judges who are hearing same-sex marriage lawsuits in Montana and South Carolina.

John Eastman, chairman of the anti-gay marriage National Organization for Marriage, agreed with Warbelow that federal judges almost certainly will rule to allow same-sex marriages. But Eastman urged state officials to continue to put up a legal fight until the Supreme Court decides the issue one way or the other.

“Until the Supreme Court decides it, this remains a viable option,” Eastman said.

State officials in Colorado, North Carolina and West Virginia chose a different path. They helped speed the process for legalizing gay marriage in their states when they announced they would no longer defend their state laws in the aftermath of the appeals court rulings.

The latest wave of court rulings that has made same-sex marriage legal in 32 states and the District of Columbia began with the unexpected decision by the Supreme Court on Oct. 6 to reject appeals by five states hoping to keep their bans in place.

The high court’s refusal to step in affected appeals courts in Chicago, Denver and Richmond, Virginia, which in turn oversee 11 states that did not previously allow same-sex couples to marry. Since the justices’ terse order, same-sex couples have been able to marry in nine of those 11 states, with Wyoming on Tuesday becoming the latest to permit it. Only Kansas and South Carolina have not followed suit.

A day after the Supreme Court action, the federal appeals court in San Francisco struck down gay marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada in a ruling that also appeared to apply to Alaska, Arizona and Montana. Since then, federal judges in Alaska and Arizona quickly ruled on pending marriage lawsuits. But in Montana, a federal judge has set a hearing in a marriage challenge for Nov. 20.

No court date has been set for South Carolina, where Attorney General Alan Wilson has said he will continue to defend state marriage law and predicted a final ruling could be months away.

The timing of court action varies from judge to judge, depending on what other matters are before the court and how much say the judge wants each side to have, Warbelow said.

In North Carolina, U.S. District Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. acted on his own to strike down the state ban after the Richmond-based appeals court ruling became final.

James Esseks, leader of the American Civil Liberties Union’s same-sex marriage efforts, said Wilson and other officials have no excuse to keep up their fight. “The circuit law is what it is. They need a little push and we’ll give it to them,” Esseks said.

Unregulated genetically modified wheat popping up in Montana

Unregulated genetically modified wheat has popped up in a second location in the United States, this time in Montana, the Agriculture Department has said.

No genetically engineered wheat has been approved for U.S. farming, and the discovery of unapproved varieties can pose a potential threat to U.S. trade with countries that have concerns about genetically modified foods.

USDA said that the incident is on a smaller scale than a similar finding in Oregon last year that prompted several Asian countries to temporarily ban U.S. wheat imports.

The herbicide-resistant wheat was found on one to three acres in Montana, while the genetically engineered plants found in Oregon were spread over more than 100 acres. And the plants were found at a university research center in Huntley, Montana, where genetically modified wheat was legally tested by seed giant Monsanto 11 years ago. The plants in Oregon were found in a field that had never conducted such tests, prompting questions about how they got there.

The department said it is investigating the discovery of the Montana wheat, which is a different variety than the genetically modified wheat found in Oregon. USDA said the wheat would be safe to eat, but none of it entered the market.

In a final report also released Friday, USDA said it believes the genetically modified wheat in Oregon was an isolated incident and that there is no evidence of that wheat in commerce. The report says the government still doesn’t know how the modified seeds got into the fields.

The discovery of the genetically modified wheat in Oregon in 2013 prompted Japan and South Korea to temporarily suspend some wheat orders, and the European Union called for more rigorous testing of U.S. shipments.

Monsanto Co. suggested last year that some of the company’s detractors may have intentionally planted the seeds. Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, said in June 2013 that sabotage is the most likely scenario, partly because the modified wheat was not distributed evenly throughout the field and was found in patches.

“It’s fair to say there are folks who don’t like biotechnology and would use this to create problems,” he said then.

Bernadette Juarez, who oversees investigative and enforcement efforts for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the department wasn’t able to prove any such scenarios.

“Ultimately, we weren’t able to make a determination of how it happened,” she said.

In a statement Friday, a Monsanto spokeswoman did not repeat Fraley’s 2013 speculation about sabotage but said the report provides closure. Monsanto also said it is fully cooperating with the investigation into the Montana wheat.

Montana State University’s Southern Agricultural Research Center, where the modified wheat was found, also said it has been cooperating with USDA’s investigation.

Most of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are already genetically modified to resist certain herbicides or to have other traits. But the country’s wheat crop is not, as some wheat farmers have shown reluctance to use genetically engineered seeds since their product is usually consumed directly by people. Much of the corn and soybean crop is used as feed for animals.

Some in the wheat industry have also been concerned that genetically modified wheat, if ever approved, would contaminate conventional wheat, causing problems with exports. Opponents of modified crops used the Oregon wheat as an example of that threat. “Genetic contamination is a serious threat to farmers across the country,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for Center for Food Safety.

Scalia complains that SCOTUS invented new minorities with marriage rulings

The U.S. Supreme Court is making decisions that should be left to Congress or the people, from wiretapping to “inventing” new classes of minorities, Justice Antonin Scalia said on Aug. 19.

In an apparent reference to the court’s recent decisions on gay marriage and benefits for same-sex couples, Scalia said it is not the function of the courts to create exceptions outside the Constitution unless a majority of people agree with them.

“It’s not up to the courts to invent new minorities that get special protections,” Scalia told a packed hotel ballroom in southwestern Montana.

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year cleared the way for same-sex marriages to resume in California and struck down part of a federal law that prevents legally married gay couples from receiving benefits. Scalia voted against the majority of justices.

Changes to the Constitution were made to protect minorities and to give women the right to vote, but that’s not how the court operates today, he said. Rather, a majority of five judges decide issues that should be in the hands of Congress or made through a change to the Constitution.

Questions such as National Security Administration surveillance of phone records or the privacy questions in the Patriot Act were once answered by Congress, which knows how serious a threat is compared to the intrusiveness of the surveillance. But now the courts are doing so.

“Of all the three branches, we are the one that knows the least about the nature of the threats to the country, and we have the least ability to find out about it,” Scalia said.

Scalia spoke before more than 300 people in Bozeman in a gathering sponsored by the right-wing Federalist Society, which he helped launch more than 30 years ago to fight the perception of liberal bias at the nation’s law schools. The group is trying to open a chapter in Montana.

Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, and his opinions have placed him among the most conservative justices on the bench.

It’s the second time in three years the 77-year-old justice has spoken in Bozeman. In 2010, he gave a speech at Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies.

Scalia answered some questions written by the audience, including a hot-button issue in Montana: the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms.

“What remains to be determined … appears to be the scope of the armament that people can keep and bear,” he said. “Can they bear shoulder-fired rocket launchers?”

He said the court will have to take those cases as they come, but his approach will be to apply the historical understanding of the Second Amendment, which was not just in self-defense against animals and home intruders, but for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical leader.

Scalia dismissed the idea of term limits for Supreme Court justices, asking, “Who is drooling on the bench?”

He also called the notion of an imperial presidency “garbage,” saying the presidency is weak by design and Congress holds the real power.

“Congress can do whatever it wants, if it gets its act together,” he said.

He also was asked about the most wrenching decision since he’s been on the bench.

“Well, is Obamacare too recent?” he asked to laughter.

Scalia dissented with the majority opinion that left President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul mostly intact.

Judge: Jesus statue can remain on Montana mountain

A Jesus statue that has for six decades been a curiosity to skiers as they cruise down a popular run at a northwest Montana ski resort will not be evicted from federal land, a judge ruled this week.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen said the Flathead National Forest can re-issue a 10-year permit for the statue installed on the ski hill by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s organization.

The judge disagreed with a Wisconsin-based group of atheists and agnostics that argued the Forest Service was unconstitutionally sanctioning the statue. Its religious nature has been made clear in special-use permit applications since the 1950s, the Freedom From Religion Foundation had argued.

The Forest Service first indicated in 2011 that it would reject a new permit for the statue, which occupies a 25-by-25 foot patch of land at Whitefish Mountain Resort. But the agency reversed itself in 2012 amid public outcry.

Christensen said that the statue does not convey to a reasonable informed observer that the government, rather than a private party, endorses Christianity over any other faith or the absence of faith. The new federal judge, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2011, said the statue is one of the last remaining remnants of the original Big Mountain Ski Resort and some locals say it reflects the transition from old timber town to tourist hotspot.

“The statue’s secular and irreverent uses far outweigh the few religious uses it has served. The statue is most frequently used as a meeting point for skiers or hikers and a site for photo opportunities, rather than a solemn place for religious reflection,” the judge wrote.

“Typical observers of the statue are more interested in giving it a high five or adorning it in ski gear than sitting before it in prayer.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which argued the statue violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on Congress making any law regarding an establishment of religion, said it was shocked by the ruling. The group disputed the notion that the Knights of Columbus statue honors veterans, calling it a ruse to place a Catholic shrine on public land.

“Saying it is fine to appropriate federal land to benefit the Knights of Columbus proselytizing efforts would seem to say the government is endorsing religion,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

She said the statue’s length of time on the hill does not justify keeping it there, and she argued it makes the constitutional transgression worse. The group said it likely will appeal.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which defended the monument in court, applauded the “commonsense” decision. It argued the statue is a far cry from creating a state religion and not every religious statue runs afoul of the Constitution.

“What we are seeing on the other side is Iconoclasm, the destruction of idols. If they disagree with something religiously, they have to destroy it,” said Eric Rassbach, an attorney for the group.

The statue has been maintained by the local Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, since members that included World War II veterans – inspired by religious monuments they saw while fighting in the mountains of Europe – erected the monument in 1955. The Knights have never been charged for use of the public land.