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Battle Lines & Power Lines: The Never-Ending Fight Over Killdeer Mountain

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Energy developers continue their assault on the 1864 Ta??a Wakut?pi (Killdeer Mountain) battlefield, where Union Brig. General Alfred Sully’s troops massacred Lakota/Dakota warriors, women, children and elders and destroyed their lodges, crops and food supplies.

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Basin Electric Power Cooperative has proposed building a 200-mile, 345-kV transmission line from Antelope Valley Station north of Beulah, North Dakota, to a substation near Tioga.

The proposed transmission line runs right through the battlefield.

“About five years ago, I attended a dedication of some of the artifacts from the battlefield to Dickinson State University…. Killdeer Mountain landowner Alick Dvirnak said there were Lakota/Dakota people buried up there [on his land, on which his family had lived since 1919]. He told me how to find the burial,” said United Tribes Technical College President Dr. David Gipp.

“While we talk about the battlefield and its significance, it is more than that to Lakota and other peoples. It was a place where our people died. We need to invoke the rights of humanity and ensure proper treatment of the dead,” Gipp said.

On September 12, the United Tribes of North Dakota issued a resolution opposing “further development that would disturb the Killdeer Mountains Battlefield site or that would disturb the remains of the many Teton Native Americans killed at the site.”

RELATED: United Tribes of North Dakota Oppose Killdeer Development

Dakota Goodhouse, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, says, “If this was [a different Civil War-related battlefield, such as] Gettysburg or Antietam, the public outcry would be so great there wouldn’t even be a discussion” about energy development.

Goodhouse notes that the National Park Service'’ American Battlefield Program has just funded a two-year study of the site to determine its eligibility for inclusion in the National Registry of Historic Places. Principal investigator, North Dakota State University Distinguished Professor and founding director of the university’s Center for Heritage Renewal, Tom Isern, says in the center’s submission to the North Dakota Public Service Commission, “The Killdeer Mountain Battlefield, where Dakota and Lakota fighters fought the Northwest Expedition of Brigadier General Alfred Sully, is an exceedingly significant historic site worthy of preservation and respect. Unfortunately, proposals here under review call for a power transmission line to be built across the core of the battlefield. This is an unacceptable denigration of the integrity of the site.”

Isern told ICTMN that the battlefield is likely the most important historical site in the state and perhaps he had not stated his objections to the transmission line strongly enough.

Basin Electric is also building power plants in North Dakota. The growth in electricity supply and transmission capacity is fueled by increasing demand from drilling operations in the Bakken oil fields. The “Williston Basin Oil and Gas Related Electrical Load Growth Forecast” released in October 2012 found that electricity demand in the 22 North Dakota counties most affected by oil and gas development in the Williston Basin and Bakken Formation would triple to 3,030 MW by 2032. The same report estimated that the number of oil wells in the state would increase from 5,000 in 2011 to as many as 40,000 in 2031.

Basin Electric spokesman Daryl Hill says the company did due diligence regarding the route and no mention was made of the National Park Service study. Notifying the tribes of the proposed project was the responsibility of the USDA’s Rural Electric Service during preparation of the Environmental Impact Study, he notes. The draft EIS shows 14 tribes were notified, but Hill says he does not know of any comments from the tribes. The company did remove a substation when they found it was in the NPS study area.

This is a map of Basin Electric’s proposed route overlaid on the battlefield site. Basin Electric's map, which is published in the Draft EIS and on their website, does not show the battlefield or study area.

On reports that there is an alternative route that would avoid the battlefield, Hill says such a route was considered in the preparation of the EIS, but was not part of Basin Electric’s proposal to the North Dakota PSC. The EIS, he explains, is one document the PSC will consider, but no alternative route is included in Basin Electric’s planning.

Hill says Basin Electric plans to walk the route and conduct an archaeological survey that would include a magnetometer study for each area where a tower would be constructed. That study, he says, should identify any burials that might be disturbed.

The North Dakota PSC has just finished public hearings on the project. The North Dakota Transmission Authority commissioned the electricity demand study, which was supported by Basin Electric and Montana-Dakota Utilities through the North Dakota Petroleum Council.