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Sheep Creek rare-earth proposal should concern anyone who loves Montana’s prize trout fishing


Sheep Creek rare-earth proposal should concern anyone who loves Montana’s prize trout fishing

Sep 27, 2023 | 6:57 am ET
By Christine Brissette David Brooks Dave Ward
Sheep Creek rare-earth proposal should concern anyone who loves Montana’s prize trout fishing
Bull trout (Photo by Pat Clayton, used with permission).

The Bitterroot Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Montana Trout Unlimited and national Trout Unlimited have invested in the Bitterroot Valley and its iconic wild trout fishery for decades.

Those investments have included everything from ensuring Painted Rocks dam provides trout-healthy flows and advocating for public access to restoring tributary streams and hiring a full-time project manager dedicated to this watershed. So, it comes as no surprise that we have serious concerns about a potential rare-earth elements mine in the Sheep Creek tributary of the West Fork Bitterroot River.

The West Fork is not only home to some of the watershed’s few remaining, Endangered Species Act-listed native bull trout, but also to productive agricultural lands, homes and vibrant hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation opportunities. Each of these are at the heart of the Bitterroot community and economy, and each could be put at serious risk by a mine upstream. 

What are we doing about it?

First, we’re making sure we have the facts. We know from a wealth of experience across Montana and the West that hard-rock mines impact water quality and quantity both during operation and after they are reclaimed. All too often, mines are abandoned in bankruptcy with long-term environmental damage, requiring tax-payer funded cleanup. So, while we fully recognize the need for minerals and rare elements, we think very critically about where and how we extract them. We also know that rare-earth mines often are associated with highly radioactive material and the kind of acid-bearing rock that results in a cocktail of toxins known as “acid-mine drainage” that often requires expensive, forever water treatment.

Extracting rare-earth elements requires both precious clean water and a host of chemical agents that also necessitate costly water treatment, with the ever-present danger of contaminating nearby ground- and surface water.  

That said, we also know that there is currently no actual proposal to mine rare-earth minerals in the upper Bitterroot and that many mine proposals never break ground. Our close reading of the situation and consultation with the Forest Service makes it clear that all that’s happening so far is a small group of investors with a questionable track record are pitching a rare-earth mine in this area to drum up investment. Their pitch falsely claims that Sheep Creek is home to one of the largest rare-earth deposits in the country, whereas there is zero evidence to support that. Similarly, the claim that the rare-earth elements in this location are not associated with radioactive material is a gross misrepresentation of the little data available on the area geology. The “company” has acquired a decade-old permit to collect surface rocks by hand tools to test for mineral contents. Actually assessing the rare-earth potential and risk would necessitate a full, underground exploration permit. The Forest Service has not received an application for that. 

Any exploration, much less a full-scale mine in Sheep Creek would require some level of environmental review and public comment.

Trout Unlimited advocates that if and when an exploration permit is submitted, the Forest Service go through an Environmental Assessment process, requiring more extensive review than the streamlined categorical exclusion sometimes used for mine exploration. In the meantime, we are diligently gathering information about rare-earth mining and the company pitching this seemingly bad idea, as well as identifying all the steps in the process that we, along with everyone concerned can take to help defend the Bitterroot.

To be clear, the 1872 Mining Law can make it very difficult for the Forest Service alone to stop a mine proposal from moving forward, which is where the Bitterroot community and groups like Trout Unlimited and valley partners become essential.  Meaningful action will come if an exploration permit is ever submitted to the Forest Service. If that happens, we will work with concerned partners – and there are many – to review that proposal, evaluate impacts and encourage public participation in the comment process. If needed, we stand ready to hire independent experts such hydrogeologists and mining engineers to ensure we provide the best reviews possible.

In the meantime, we encourage everyone interested to sign up for the Forest Service email listserve to receive updates on any changes or new proposals relative to a Sheep Creek mine by contacting USFS’s Dan Pliley, [email protected].

This guest opinion piece was written by Dave Ward, President, Bitterroot Chapter of Trout Unlimited; David Brooks, Executive Director, Montana Trout Unlimited; and Christine Brissette, Bitterroot Project Manager, Trout Unlimited.