JACKSON — A gold exploration project in the headwaters of the Snake River’s Henrys Fork is temporarily on hold because of a judge’s determination that federal land managers failed to assess impacts on Yellowstone cutthroat trout.
A 2018 lawsuit brought by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Idaho Conservation League challenged the Caribou-Targhee National Forest’s decision to authorize British Columbia-based Otis Gold Corporation to explore for gold in 19 square miles in the Centennial Mountains about 60 miles north of Idaho Falls. The environmental groups, represented by Advocates for the West, argued that 10.5 miles of road and 140 drill stations that were OK’d north of Kilgore, Idaho, would compromise grizzly bear migration, whitebark pine, Yellowstone cutthroat trout and Columbia spotted frogs in the area, known as the High Divide.
Arguments on bears, pines and amphibians didn’t stand up, but U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Winmill ruled last week that the U.S. Forest Service failed to consider how drilling could affect the native trout in the watershed.
“Because the Forest Service did not do a baseline study on the Dog Bone Ridge area, and is not requiring any monitoring there,” Winmill ruled Wednesday, “the agency does not know whether drilling will cause contaminated groundwater to flow into Corral Creek, habitat for the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, a sensitive species.”
The Forest Service, Winmill found, failed to take a “hard look” at those impacts, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. He remanded the case to the Forest Service, directing it to collect baseline data and review how drilling could affect groundwater and cutthroat that inhabit Corral Creek.
Confusingly, both the Otis Gold Corporation and environmental advocacy groups interpreted the ruling as a win.
Otis’ CEO and president, Craig Lindsay, dubbed the decision “hugely positive.”
“We will work with the Forest Service to remedy the data deficiencies identified at Dog Bone Ridge,” Lindsay said in a statement, “and note that much, if not all, of the information the Court has requested has previously been collected as part of the comprehensive permitting process.”
Meanwhile, the Idaho Conservation League’s John Robison also said the ruling was “good news.”
“Streams flowing from the area support trout, provide water for irrigation and aquifer recharge, and eventually flow through the Camas Creek National Wildlife Refuge and into Mud Lake,” Robinson said in a statement. “Mining activities have the potential to put all this at risk.”
Kathy Rinaldi, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s Idaho Conservation Coordinator, said the gold mine being ultimately pursued — an open-pit type that uses cyanide — has a horrendous environmental track record and is inappropriate for the porous, volcanic geology in the High Divide.
“They all leak, all of them,” Rinaldi said in an interview. “They’re banned in Montana. And this is a headwater of the Snake River.”
Otis Gold Corporation has estimated that its Kilgore Project area contains 825,000 ounces of gold. The project is still in the exploratory stages. Prospecting that the Caribou-Targhee approved would have allowed for 23 acres of disturbance over five years, during which time Otis workers would be shuttling hazardous fuels and drilling fluids. Some 420 drill holes would be completed, and drilling water would come from on-site wells and from water pumped directly from West Camas and Corral creeks.
Cutthroat are already in rough shape in the swath of the Centennials in question, Winmill pointed out in his ruling. Allen Creek, McGarry Creek and the East Fork of Rattlesnake Creek — which are all within the Kilgore project area — are all devoid of cutthroat due to silt and sediment, warm water and shoddy habitat.
“The Forest Service recognized that this poor water quality and habitat contribute to Yellowstone cutthroat trout barely surviving in the West Camas Creek watershed,” Winmill wrote in the ruling.
Native cutthroat have been functionally extirpated from downstream reaches of the Henrys Fork watershed, though exotic rainbow and brown trout thrive there.
Alan Roberts, Otis’ vice president of exploration, said that the decision reaffirms his business’ “right” to continue exploring at Kilgore.
“We are now in a position to significantly expand exploration at Kilgore unencumbered by the complaint,” Roberts said in a statement, “and will be conducting a significant drill program in 2020 with the goal being to expand the existing Kilgore deposit and identify new ones.”
Rinaldi said the Greater Yellowstone Coalition plans to keep up the fight.
“We’ve told [Otis Gold Corporation] that we understand that you guys are in business and this is what you guys do,” she said, “but this is a really terrible place for this type of gold mine.”