Mining Company to Explore Bitterroot River for Rare Earth Metals

On May 2, U.S. Forest Service officials stationed in the Bitterroot National Forest of western Montana said they’ve received a mining company’s Notice of Intent (NOI) to further explore the headwaters of the Bitterroot River for underground minerals used in smartphones, wind turbines, electric car batteries, and a host of other alternative energy applications. The so-called rare-earth elements are located in the Sheep Creek drainage of the Bitterroot Mountains, which flows into the headwaters of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River. But extraction would likely require a large open-pit mine, according to experts familiar with rare-earth mining practices. Concerned hunters and anglers fear that such a project would harm the Bitterroot’s world-class trout fishery and the area’s intact habitat for elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and other iconic Western game species.

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US Critical Materials (USCM) describes itself as a Utah-based company, but it has roots in Vancouver, Canada, according to reporting from the Missoulian. The company first announced its intent to mine for rare earth metals above the headwaters of the Bitterroot’s West Fork back in 2022. The announcement caused significant alarm among local residents, hunters and anglers, and some national conservation groups like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and Trout Unlimited.

“We’re watching it closely,” David Brooks, Executive Director of Montana Trout Unlimited tells Field & Stream. “It would be a concern for us to see any mine in the West Fork of the Bitterroot, particularly up there on Sheep Creek.” The area is home to endangered bull trout and native Westslope cutthroat trout, Brooks notes, and Sheep Creek—where USCM says it wants to mine—serves as a source of cold, clean water where both species can spawn.

The West Fork is also known for an epic salmon fly hatch that incites a trout feeding frenzy each summer. The hatch brings fly fisherman to the river in droves each year, but Brooks and TU worry that a rare-earth mine in the headwaters could change that. “Salmon flies are lower on the food chain than fish,” he says. “If there are water-quality issues associated with a mine, they would likely show up in insects before they might in the fish.”  

Longtime West Fork guide Jack Mauer of Wapiti Waters with a salmon fly resting on his hat.
Longtime West Fork guide Jack Mauer of Wapiti Waters with a salmon fly resting on his hat. Travis Hall.

Continued Exploration

Since 2022, USCM mine workers have only preformed light exploration of the Sheep Creek drainage using trucks and ATVs for transportation, drones and helicopters for aerial surveys, and hand tools for extracting surface level samples of rare-earth elements. But the company has made national headlines touting its 336 lode claims in the Bitterroot National Forest as the richest rare-earth mineral deposit in the United States—and a solution to the nation’s reliance on China for the widely-used rare-earth metals.

Whatever the company’s longterm plans might be, they’ll be doing at least another season of small-scale exploration with hand tools before submitting an official Plan of Operations for exploratory drilling, the Forest Service says.

In a recent interview with the Daily Montanan, USCM spokesman Ed Cowle said the company has explored roughly one-third, or 1,000 acres, of their 10-square miles of mining claims to date and plans to continue its sampling and surveying efforts as soon as the snow melts this spring. Acknowledging local opposition to the proposed project, Cowle said USCM will begin reaching out to locals to educate them about the potential rare-earth mine. “We thought the smart thing to do would be to reach out and give some presentations,” he said. “And I think that will be happening very soon.”

Trout Fishing photo
A view of the Sheep Creek drainage from a Forest Service road near the USCM’s mining claims. Travis Hall.

Grass Roots Opposition

Phillip Ramsey is an ecologist and mine-waste expert who earned a PhD studying the impacts of mine waste contamination in the nearby Clark Fork drainage. A lifelong hunter and angler, Ramsey lives near the West Fork of the Bitterroot, and alongside his wife Bonnie, he’s spearheading a grassroots movement of local opposition to the proposed Sheep Creek mine. Ramsey formed in the Bitterroot Clean Water Alliance in August 2023, and he’s been traveling the Bitterroot Valley giving presentations about the grave environmental risks associated with rare-earth mines since USCM first announced its claims.

Ramsey tells F&S that local opposition to USCM’s plans has grown steadily since he started hosting talks about rare-earth mining last spring. “People don’t want to lose what they love about living in Montana,” he says. “That’s clean water, wildlife, and recreational value.”

A West Slope cutthroat trout caught in the West Fork Bitterroot not far from the Sheep Creek mining claims.
A cutthroat trout caught in the West Fork Bitterroot, not far from USCM’s Sheep Creek mining claims. Travis Hall.

According to Ramsey, USCM had planned to submit a Plan of Operations to the Forest Service in April 2024 but failed to do so on time. “We’ll wait and see if they do get their drilling plan together for the summer,” he says, “but it will be too late for them to do anything before snow flies this year.”

Mining Takes Precedence on National Forest Land

If and when USCM does submit a Plan of Operations, there will likely be an environmental assessment—triggered by the EPA’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—followed by a public comment period. But even if the public opposes the plan, Ramsey and other Sheep Creek mine opponents worry that the Forest Service could be bound to approve the project by an 1872 law that governs mining practices on federally managed public lands.

“Per the 1872 Mining Law, mining is considered the highest and best use of Forest Service land, and they have to approve a permit unless it violates another federal law, like the Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act (ESA),” he says. “Mining isn’t on an equal footing with hunting, fishing, and timber on National Forest land.”

A decommissioned mine adit in the Sheep Creek area of the Bitterroot National Forest.
A decommissioned mine adit in the Sheep Creek area of the Bitterroot National Forest. Travis Hall.

Both TU’s Brooks and Dr. Ramsey say that the bull trout’s status as an ESA-protected species could stop the Forest Service from permitting a proposed mine in Sheep Creek. The Bitterroot was one of the first rivers identified as a critical restoration area for bull trout when Montana began efforts to save the notoriously sensitive species back in the early 1990s.

There are migratory populations of bull trout in both the East and West Fork of the Bitterroot, with some specimens as big as 20 inches, according to Montana FWP. The fish have been federally protected since 1999. But there are fast-track exclusions that could bypass the Endangered Species Act if the Feds were to determine that the proposed mining project is necessary and not overly controversial with local communities, Ramsey says.

What Would the Mine Look Like?

In the event that a rare-earth operation is approved for the Sheep Creek drainage, Ramsey says there’s a high probability that it will include a large open-pit mine. “Every profitable rare-earth element mine is an open-pit mine, and they’ve all had radioactive leaks,” he says.

There’s only one operational rare-earth mine in North America and it sits in the Mojave Desert of California. Most other rare-earth mines are owned and controlled by China. According to Forbes, China has cornered the rare-earth market largely because of its willingness to engage in rare-earth mining and refinement despite the process’s environmentally destructive nature.

Both Ramsey and Brooks are quick to point out that rare-earth elements aren’t really rare. In fact, they’re found in high concentrations in the waste material leftover from previous mining operations—like coal ash in West Virginia or the highly-toxic sludge found in the Berkley Pit in Butte, Montana.

Read Next: Feds to Deny Permit for Proposed Mining Road Through Alaska’s Famed Brooks Range

While the radioactive byproducts of rare-earth mining are a big concern for Ramsey, he’s even more troubled by the proposed operation’s potential for leaching other toxins into the Bitterroot Watershed. “Knowing a lot about how mine waste affects rivers, I’m a lot more worried about the arsenic and the lead than the [radioactive] thorium—and we don’t even have and the selenium or cadmium numbers yet,” he says. “Those are the things that end up killing rivers.” Both arsenic and lead tend to exist in high concentrations anywhere rare-earth elements are found.

In a petition, Ramsey and the Bitterroot Clean Water Alliance are asking the Montana Department of Envirnonmental Quality (DEQ) and the U.S. Forest Service to “stop damaging exploration activities for the Sheep Creek mine at the headwaters of the West Fork.” So far, the petition has gathered more than 900 signatures.

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