By KEITH RIDLER
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service violated environmental laws in approving exploratory drilling by a Canadian company hoping to build a gold mine in Idaho west of Yellowstone National Park, two environmental groups said.
The Idaho Conservation League and Greater Yellowstone Coalition filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court last week to stop Excellon Idaho Gold’s Kilgore Gold Exploration Project in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in Clark County.
The groups site potential harm to grizzly bears, wolverines, lynx, bighorn sheep, whitebark pine trees, Columbia spotted frogs and Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Grizzly bears in the area are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and whitebark pine, a grizzly bear food source, has been proposed for listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Excellon Idaho Gold is a subsidiary of Toronto, Ontario-based Excellon Resources Inc. It acquired the project from British Columbia-based Otis Gold Corporation in 2020.
Otis Gold Corporation said the area contains at least 825,000 ounces of gold near the surface, and potentially more below. It said it was looking at possibly building an open-pit mine if exploration finds that the gold is mostly near the surface, or an underground mine if the gold is deeper. Those types of mines would require additional approval from the Forest Service.
Excellon Idaho Gold on its website says it’s too early to determine how the project might develop, but it is committed to open and transparent communication.
The environmental groups filed a similar lawsuit in 2018 to stop exploratory drilling by Otis Gold Corporation and won. The Forest Service in November 2021 approved a new plan involving road building and 130 drill stations put forward by Excellon Idaho Gold. Those operations, according to the lawsuit, are scheduled to start on July 15.
Excellon Idaho Gold is not named as a defendant in the most recent lawsuit. In the previous lawsuit, Otis Gold Corporation intervened on the side of the Forest Service.
The environmental groups in the new lawsuit said the Forest Service opted to approve the project by applying the White House Council on Environmental Quality changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, following an executive order by former President Donald Trump seeking to accelerate the environmental review process.
“Although there are several pending cases challenging the 2020 regulations as inconsistent with the core tenets of NEPA, the Forest Service elected to apply the 2020 regulations and ignored the Kilgore Project’s likely significant effects,” the lawsuit states.
The groups also said the exploratory drilling violates the Forest Service Act of 1897 that includes protections for national forests. Additionally, the groups said the Forest Service should complete an environmental impact statement, a much longer review process than the one the agency used in approving the exploratory drilling.
The U.S. Department of Justice, which defends federal agencies in lawsuits, didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry sent through its online portal.
The Idaho Conservation League and Greater Yellowstone Coalition initially sought to reopen the first case and file a supplemental complaint, but that plan was rejected by the court. So the groups filed an entirely new lawsuit starting a new case.
The court in the previous lawsuit ruled that the Forest Service didn’t violate environmental laws in determining the exploratory drilling wouldn’t overly harm grizzly bears, whitebark pine or Columbia spotted frogs.
But those concerns are taken up again in the new lawsuit, with the groups citing changing conditions from when the initial lawsuit was filed.
“The Kilgore Project site is also home to individuals and habitat for numerous special-status and at-risk terrestrial species of wildlife and plants, including grizzly bear, wolverine, lynx, elk, whitebark pine, and others found in the Centennial Mountains,” the lawsuit states.
The groups also said grizzly bears travel through the area resulting in important genetic diversity for the population.
“The Centennial Mountains are one of the key corridors for (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) grizzly to connect with grizzlies from other populations in the Northern Rockies,” the lawsuit states.