How Pat Thiele found himself in the Battle of the Bulls

Pat Thiele first became a Northern Plains member in 2016 when he heard about our “soil crawl” workshops focused on regenerative agriculture practices. He was glad to “support a good cause and be peripherally involved.” Pat knew that he and his wife, Maureen, lived right outside of the permit boundary of the Bull Mountains Mine No. 1, an underground coal mine operated by Signal Peak Energy. Given the global decline of coal, Pat figured that the mine wouldn’t last long enough to impact him or his neighbors. He had heard rumblings about Signal Peak impacting a handful of wells and springs but didn’t know many specifics.

That changed in February 2021, when Pat received a letter from Signal Peak seeking access to his property to conduct environmental surveys. Pat got in touch with his neighbors, including Bull Mountain Land Alliance (BMLA) members, and realized they received similar letters. (BMLA is Northern Plains’ Bull Mountain affiliate.) After investigation, they found that Signal Peak’s letters were the first steps toward seeking a mine expansion permit. The mine had no plans of going away any time soon.

Shortly thereafter, Pat found himself at member Ellen Pfister’s kitchen table with a small group of longtime BMLA members. They were developing an outreach strategy to the 49 landowners who received these letters. As Pat learned more about his neighbors’ experiences with Signal Peak, he was appalled by the stories of damaged water and lack of accountability. “My philosophy of life is in direct opposition of the philosophy of resource extraction at the expense of the environment.” From then on, Pat knew he was going to be more than “peripherally involved.”

Pat was born and raised on Oahu, Hawaii, growing up in the mountains and the ocean. After serving in the U.S. Army for twenty-two years, Pat worked for the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife, where he spent his time in the woods building fences and trails, planting trees, and fighting forest fires. As Pat and Maureen saw their Oahu home become increasingly overdeveloped by the tourism industry, they wanted to move somewhere with the quiet, open spaces that they loved about their island growing up. So they moved to the Bull Mountains, where they “found solitude, beauty, wildlife, and good neighbors” twenty-plus years ago. They have a small ranch, and Pat has worked at several of his neighbors ranches. “I think of myself as someone who wants to be a good steward of the land and be able to say I left it better than I found it.”

Pat is now the chair of BMLA. During his time as chair, BMLA’s membership has doubled, local landowners have developed a robust water monitoring program, and the group has gained national recognition in The New York Times for their fight to hold Signal Peak – a profoundly corrupt, reckless coal company – accountable to the local community. He has poured countless hours into essential research and outreach to neighbors. If you bring this up with Pat, he’ll wave away the credit and point to all of the other members who’ve been important to the campaign as well. But at Northern Plains we know that successful movements are not possible without determined, strategic grassroots leaders.

There’s still a long road ahead in the fight for the Bull Mountains, and Pat will not back down. “I’m obstinate. I hope to be patient and persistent and ultimately successful.”

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