Sheep Creek drilling plan postponed, but Bitterroot mine sampling to continue in 2024 • Daily Montanan

Mining explorers are free to continue their work at Sheep Creek in 2024, but the company that wants to drill in the Bitterroot National Forest won’t be transporting heavy equipment there just yet.

US Critical Materials had planned to file an operations plan to drill near the mouth of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River this year, but has once again announced its intention to resume light work from May 1 through October 26.

The Bitterroot National Forest found that the work will not require the company to submit a full operating plan for approval, and district ranger Dan Pliley said Thursday that the work will be similar to sampling that took place in 2022 and 2023.

“They continue with their explorations and field sampling,” Pliley said.

Ed Cowle, director of US Critical Materials’ management team, said the operations plan is taking longer in part because it is a “high-profile” project. He said he expects it to be filed sometime in mid- to late summer.

“But there’s a lot that goes into approving the operations plan,” Cowle said. “And we’re working on a few things to be able to inform local citizens and give our opinions.”

The project is controversial because it would take place near the headwaters of the Bitterroot and in an area with wolverines, Canada lynx and sometimes grizzly bears. Commercial mining has not taken place in this forest for decades.

Mining appeals to the company because it says initial samples show high concentrations of “rare earth elements,” minerals used in everything from iPhones to electric vehicles, and that China controls much of the industry.

A 2023 Forbes analysis states that China controls these elements not because of their abundance, but because mining them is destructive to the environment, and that China is less concerned about the damage than other countries.

So far, however, the planned work at Sheep Creek won’t even allow heavy mechanical equipment, according to the company’s 2024 notice.

The exploration involves collecting soil samples up to 2 pounds, taking rock samples from streams and collecting crushed stone samples up to 5 pounds.

It also includes mapping access to listings or mine openings, conducting geophysical mapping and flying helicopters and drones to collect data about the property.

“There will be no surface disturbance associated with the investigation,” the US Critical Materials release said.

The notice describes the use of pickup trucks, SUVs and similar four-wheel drive vehicles.

Cowle said the company has only explored about a third of the site so far, or about 1,000 hectares, and will expand sampling this season once the snow melts.

He previously said exploratory drilling – if approved in a future operations plan – would indicate whether the subsurface materials match surface samples.

A coalition of 19 conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, has already urged the Bitterroot National Forest to keep the public engaged and adhere to National Environmental Policy Act requirements as the project moves forward.

Larry Campbell of Friends of the Bitterroot said Thursday that accelerated processes are possible with rare earth elements. Once the operations plan is submitted, he said, the Forest Service should avoid any path that excludes the public — such as a categorical exclusion.

“It’s a very quick and dirty, superficial analysis,” Campbell said of the categorical exclusion. “And this area deserves more than a superficial analysis.”

Cowle said the company soon plans to contact locals to talk about plans and appeal to some of the opposition, and may open a local office.

“We thought it would be smart and right to reach out and do some presentations,” he said. “And I think that will happen very soon.”