BOISE — The federal government violated environmental laws by approving a Canadian company’s plan to search for gold in key wildlife habitat in eastern Idaho, two conservation groups say in a federal lawsuit.
The Idaho Conservation League and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in the lawsuit filed Tuesday say the U.S. Forest Service needs to halt British Columbia-based Otis Gold Corporation’s five-year mining exploration project in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.
The Forest Service in August approved the project that includes 10 miles of new roads and 140 drill stations.
“Our concerns are that the Forest Service kind of rushed its approval without looking at impacts and protecting against impacts the exploration might have,” Bryan Hurlbutt, an attorney with Advocates for the West who is representing the groups, said Thursday.
The groups say the agency approved the project without doing the necessary environmental review to determine how grizzly bears, Yellowstone cutthroat trout and whitebark pine trees could be harmed. The groups say the work would disrupt wildlife corridors that connect to the nearby Yellowstone National Park as part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).
“The site is in the Centennial Mountains within a critical wildlife corridor linking GYE grizzly bear to areas of unoccupied habitat and to other grizzly populations in the Northern Rockies,” the lawsuit states. “Protecting the quality and security of the habitat in the remaining corridors between core recovery areas is critical to restoring” grizzly bear populations.
The Forest Service completed an Environmental Assessment in May. But the conservation groups say a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement is needed, and they are asking a federal judge to order the Forest Service to prepare one before more mineral exploration can continue.
The U.S. Department of Justice, which represents federal agencies in lawsuits, didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry from The Associated Press on Thursday.
Otis Gold Corp’s Kilgore Project covers about 19 square miles on Forest Service land and land managed by the state of Idaho in Clark County about 60 miles north of Idaho Falls.
The mining company says the area contains about 825,000 ounces of gold, currently worth nearly $1 billion. The company in a summary of its plans says it would like to get the gold by digging an open-pit mine.
Such a mine would require additional approval from the Forest Service.
John Robison of the Idaho Conservation League said his group is concerned about the effects on water quality from the exploration and especially an open pit mine, not only to wildlife but also humans.
“The water from this drainage is also important for the agricultural community and contributes to the (Eastern) Snake Plain Aquifer,” he said.
The aquifer supplies water to cities and farms in the region.