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For now, Nakota Energy can drill three more oil wells at Bear Butte

PIERRE - For centuries Bear Butte has been a place of religious significance for Northern Plains Indian tribes. On Wednesday, after two days of a special re-hearing, the state Board of Minerals and Environment decided oil wells should still be al...

PIERRE - For centuries Bear Butte has been a place of religious significance for Northern Plains Indian tribes. On Wednesday, after two days of a special re-hearing, the state Board of Minerals and Environment decided oil wells should still be allowed near Bear Butte, just not as many.

The board revoked its 2010 order that would have allowed an oil field of as many as 24 wells within 1.5 miles of the solitary mountain east of Sturgis. That permit would have made possible drilling wells on private land inside the boundary of the national historic site.

The board instead agreed on a new order Wednesday with many new restrictions that limit the wells to five for now and require all wells to be outside the boundary. Two of those five wells have been drilled outside the boundary but neither is producing yet.

"We do have competing interests," board member Tim Johns of Lead, a retired circuit judge, said. He cited the state law that promotes oil and gas development and the federal law that protects American Indian freedom of religion.

Johns said the potential for degradation of Bear Butte and the potential for oil production are conjecture at this point. He suggested the new approach. "Once it's developed they can come back and tell us whether it's worthwhile to pursue," he said.

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Among those testifying Wednesday about the spiritual importance of Bear Butte and calling for revocation of the permit were Lower Brule Sioux tribal chairman Michael Jandreau; Rosebud Sioux council member Russell Eagle Bear, who is the tribe's historic preservation officer; Standing Rock Sioux council member and former tribal chairman Jesse Taken Alive; and Conrad Fisher, the historical preservation officer for the Northern Cheyenne tribe.

Each said his tribal government wasn't contacted ever by the field's developer, Nakota Energy, a North Carolina- and South Dakota-based oil and gas exploration company. They further said their governments weren't contacted by state officials until after the original permit was granted by the state board.

"To the Cheyenne this is the center of the universe," Fisher said.

The board's new order further attempts to mitigate potential impacts through various steps that were recommended in April by the state historical preservation office.

One of those requires a survey at each drilling site by a federally recognized archaeologist accompanied by a tribal person as a monitor. Other steps address such things as roads and the color, size and location of equipment

The board issued the original order in December for the 960-acre field without submitting the application to the state historical preservation office for the review required by state law for projects that could alter or encroach upon a historic site.

No one attended the original hearing last year to protest. News reports stirred attention afterward. Eventually someone discovered that about one-third of the oil field would be within the national landmark boundary, thereby requiring the state historical review.

"That evidence was unknown to the department at the last hearing," state lawyer Roxanne Giedd said.

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Besides its listing on the national register of historical places and as a national historic landmark, Bear Butte is designated as a state park and is owned by the government of South Dakota.

State historical preservation officer Jason Haug testified Wednesday that his records don't show how the national site boundary was decided. He said the national designations don't show up on property records at the county register of deeds.

Pete Sutton, one of Nakota Energy's three owners, said he didn't contact any tribal officials because all of the land within the proposed oil field is privately owned. Sutton, a geologist from Wilmington, N.C., said the pump-jacks and tanks are small and difficult to see from the road 1,500 feet away.

He said they'll be even less noticeable from the base of Bear Butte.

"Truly, you really need binoculars to see anything," Sutton said.

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