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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Dec 22 2015

Too Precious to Mine

Tell the BLM to withdraw new mining leases near Glasgow to protect sage grouse, mountain plover, other species

Alerts, Featured

Most Montanans have never heard of Gumbo Plateau, Caravan Marsh Hawk Hills, Sage Creek, and other lands in northeastern Montana near Glasgow. These places don’t get a lot of use outside of hunting season, but they are incredibly valuable nonetheless because they represent some of the very best habitat for the greater sage grouse in Montana, as well as for pronghorns, mule deer, mountain plover, and other species. That’s why it makes perfect sense for the Department of the Interior (DOI) to withdraw these lands from being considered for mining leases.

The BLM has identified these areas as having wilderness characteristics. Equally significant, they are located within the “sage brush focal area” – 927,000 acres of undisturbed land that is mostly blocked up. In its Hi-Line Resource Management Plan, finalized last fall, the BLM identified this focal area as an essential stronghold for the survival of sage grouse. To insure that this critical habitat is maintained, the management plan proposed common sense measures, including the prohibition of oil and gas drilling, transmission lines, roads, and other surface disturbances.

In addition, the plan recommended a mineral withdrawal to prohibit hardrock mining and exploration for 20 years, the maximum time allowed. Both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM have identified the harm to sage-grouse habitat that can occur from  mining.

Right now, these lands are temporarily protected for up to two years while the DOI considers whether to withdraw these areas for mineral development. But the Secretary of Interior will need to make a decision on the proposed withdrawal.

The primary mineral of concern is bentonite, a mineral used mostly for drilling for oil and gas in mud. There is a history of bentonite mining within the area, and the BLM recently approved the expansion of a small mine within the focal area.

Where valid existing claims exist, mining will be allowed to continue, but some of the land with mining potential includes big open mud flats, great habitat for mountain plover. In fact, the BLM has administratively designated some of this area as an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” (ACEC) to protect mountain plover. But mining is not prohibited in the ACEC.

Since the BLM has already decided to eliminate other damaging activities, the agency should prohibit mining as well, a use that is incompatible with managing for sage grouse, mountain plover, and other wildlife. Please tell the BLM to not allow mining in the ACECs.

You can submit your comments by email to Mark Mackiewicz at sagebrush_withdrawals@blm.gov or by snail mail to:

National Project Manager
Price Field Office,
115 South 600 West
Price, UT 84501

Written comments on the mineral withdrawal are due by January 15, 2016.

Here are some suggested comments on the proposed mineral withdrawal for the Hi-Line Focal Area.

Ask the Department of Interior to:

  • Move forward with the recommended withdrawals.
  • Complete its NEPA analysis and make recommendations in a timely manner, but until that analysis is complete, keep a moratorium on mining activities in place to ensure that habitat values are not lost in the interim.
  • Make needed adjustments to the proposed withdrawal areas to ensure that the best habitat is protected, which may require expanding the current proposals and require that any mapping errors be corrected.
  • If there are specific areas that would benefit from the added protection that mineral withdrawal would provide, identify those specifically.
  • Assess how mining could impact mountain plover and other wildlife in the focal area.

- Mark Good, central Montana field director