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Mining company says there's a big deposit of rare earth minerals in the Bitterroot

 A softball-sized chunk of ore with rough edges and a mosaic of light green and rose-colored elements. A penny sits on the rock for scale.
United States Geological Survey and the Mineral Information Institute.
Rare earth ore, with a penny for size comparison.

A mine exploration company says they may have found a significant deposit of rare earth minerals in the southern Bitterroot Valley. MTPR’s John Hooks has been looking into the site and the company’s claims. He shared his findings with Austin Amestoy.

Austin: Alright John, take us to Sheep Creek where these mining claims are held.  

John: So Sheep Creek is at the far southern edge of the Bitterroot, south of Darby, right by the Idaho border. People have known about this area for a long time, there was even previous rare earth mining there in the 60s. It’s part of a bigger geologic formation that runs from central Idaho into southwest Montana, where there are known deposits of these rocks called carbonatites. And those carbonatites are known to hold rare earth elements

Austin: Wait, if people have known Sheep Creek held these valuable deposits for so long, why are we hearing about possible mining here now?

John: There’s greater demand for the elements. Rare earths are used in a lot of high-tech computer parts, electric batteries, and that sort of thing.

For a long time there was no interest in this site, or really in any rare earth mining in America, because almost the entirety of the world's rare earths are mined and processed in China, who can do it much cheaper and without some of the same environmental standards other countries have.

What’s changed is that in recent years, the U.S. federal government has gotten more hawkish toward China. There’s been a really significant effort to identify potential deposits here and try and accelerate domestic production to lessen our dependence on Chinese production.

Austin: Right, so tell me more about this company and what they say they’ve found. 

John: This company is called U.S. Critical Materials. They own 223 claims, covering about seven square miles.

What they're reporting so far is pretty striking. They’ve done some sampling on surface rocks and historic mine shafts. Essentially that means they’ve picked rocks up off the ground and out of these old tunnels.

And those rocks have been found to have really high concentrations of these elements. The company says that they expect there to be a lot more under the site, and have projected a $43 billion resource value at the site. Here’s what the executive director of Critical Materials, Harvey Kaye, said.

"What we believe is there is a continuous source that lies, not only at 125 feet, which is where our calculations have been made to generate that number, but also could be deeper and we think is going to be a lot wider over the property." 

Austin: That’s a pretty remarkable claim. What are outside mining experts saying about the potential size of the deposit?

John: I talked to a number of geologists and mining experts about this and the answer I got was that it is really too early to say for sure whether or not there’s something worth mining here, let alone putting that kind of huge dollar figure on it. To summarize, they told me the company has only scratched the surface of exploration. They don’t contest the results the company has released, but stress that 5-10 years of further exploration is needed before we know whether or not there's enough material below the surface to make any kind of mining operation viable. Here’s what David Chambers of the Center for Science in Public Participation, which provides technical information on mining to public interest groups and tribal governments said.

Chambers: But ultimately it's all about how much of it there is. And that’s what they’re going to have to determine. And in order to do that they’re going to have to spend a fair amount of money drilling.

Austin: No doubt any type of mining operation can take years, maybe decades, before it gets under way. Are we likely to see mining at Sheep Creek anytime soon?

John: It would take years and a ton of investment before any potential mine opens up. And before that could happen there would need to be quite a few procedural steps with the U.S. Forest Service and state environmental officials. After some initial media reporting on this company’s claim of finding this trove of rare elements, the Forest Service issued a press release last week. The agency basically said that nothing happens until a plan for exploration or mine development is submitted, which there hasn’t been. If that plan did come forward, that would trigger an environmental review.

Austin: Sounds like a lot is still to be determined before we’ll know if anyone will actually start opening up the ground. Is the U.S. government doing anything to encourage more mining like this?  

John: The government is essentially trying to create a domestic market for these resources.

Congress has allocated $1 billion dollars to build up our mineral reserves, and everyone from the Departments of Energy to Defenseis dolling out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to increase extraction and processing capability.

And you can see that involvement in Montana where the U.S. Army Research is lab funding Montana Tech studies in the Sheep Creek area, and the USGS will begin some surveying and exploration of their own this summer, all with the goal of determining whether or not there really is a minable deposit here.

Austin: Thanks for unearthing this story, John!

John joined the Montana Public Radio team in August 2022. Born and raised in Helena, he graduated from the University of Montana’s School of Media Arts and created the Montana history podcast Land Grab. John can be contacted at
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