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Proposed wells draw controversy: Rancher, tribal member oppose drilling in Killdeer Mountains

Home to one historic battlefield site already, the Killdeer Mountains are the subject of a new North Dakota fight.

This time, however, the battle is not between the U.S. Army and tribes of Native Americans, but rather between the oil industry and the people who live near and use the mountains, which begin about eight miles northwest of Killdeer.

Much to the chagrin of some Dunn County residents and native tribes that use the land for ceremonial purposes, the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources Oil and Gas Division, an arm of the Industrial Commission, will host a hearing Wednesday in Bismarck regarding the addition of a number of new oil drilling sites in the county and around the state, several of which would be in the immediate area of the mountains.

"It's a travesty," said Loren Jepson, a rancher who lives about 15 miles northwest of Killdeer. "People should be concerned about this. If you care about hunting, searching for native artifacts or birdwatching in the Killdeer Mountains, that's all in jeopardy."

Though drilling is not allowed in certain areas in and around the mountains, Jepson said the addition of four -- and possibly more -- hydraulic fracturing sites in the area could exacerbate issues residents are already facing because of drilling north of Killdeer along ND Highway 22, such as heavy truck traffic, dust and noise.

"It's a quality of life issue," Jepson said. "We know that there has been and will continue to be drilling here, I just wish the oil companies would have more respect for the people who have lived here their whole lives. I wish the oil companies would just work with people."

The proposed new wells -- which are just a few of dozens that will come before ND Oil and Gas this week -- would be in close proximity to the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site and certain areas that some Native American tribes consider to be sacred, such as Medicine Hole, a cave-like site in the mountains that has been part of Native American lore for decades.

A member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and an instructor of Native American studies at Fort Berthold Community College in New Town, Delvin Driver Sr., said the Killdeer Mountains -- especially Medicine Hole -- have a lot of spiritual significance for his people.

"This is an area where people from different tribes, from all over, come to fast and make contact with different spirits," Driver said. "This is sacred land. The native people are spiritual people and the land is who we are. If there is a lot of interference for the people who go in those mountains, it's not going to be a good spiritual experience for them."

Driver added he understands that drilling is a fact of life in North Dakota.

"The oil industry is here and it will continue to be here," Driver said. "But they don't really see our views -- they see money. They'll step on anybody's foot to get more."

The historic battlefield site in the Killdeer Mountains commemorates an 1864 skirmish between the Army and a gathering of Yanktonai, Dakota and Teton Indians. As legend has it, Medicine Hole is a narrow passageway leading off the mountaintop through its base used by natives to escape U.S. soldiers during the conflict more than a century ago.

Jepson said he has retained the Dickinson law firm Mackoff Kellogg to fight the location of the proposed wells and will be in attendance at the hearing on Wednesday.

"I don't know what to expect," Jepson said. "I know a lot of others in the community feel the same way I do, but it seems that nobody will do anything about it. I'm trying to do something about it."

Hess Corp. is listed as the proprietor of the wells on ND Oil and Gas documents. Representatives from Hess could not be reached for comment Monday.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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