Sheep Creek Mine: You Bet We’re Ready to Take Care of What’s Ours.

For three decades, the Bitterroot Water Partnership has worked for clean, abundant water and healthy habitats in the Bitterroot Valley. Through active restoration and engaging watershed stewards, our work helps ensure enough cold water and thriving habitats for the people and wildlife in our Valley now, and into the future.   

Right now, the news of a potential rare earth element (REE) mine in the Sheep Creek tributary of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River is a hot topic in the Bitterroot. We’re glad people are paying attention to threats facing our waters and proud to have witnessed readiness to act to keep our waters clean. The Bitterroot Water Partnership has always worked for clean and abundant water and this commitment to clean water is emphasized in the midst of a conversation regarding a potential mine. That’s why we’re tracking the potential for a REE mine.  We’re prepared to keep you up to date on if, when, and how we can best act together to protect our River from a potential mine or from the many other active threats to our waters.

Why do We Say “Potential” for a Mine 

There’s no doubt that a REE Mine in the headwaters of the West Fork would be devastating for water quality in the West Fork and throughout our river System. Should a proposed mine become a full-bodied threat that our community has to defeat, it would be among the most important collaborative efforts our community will need to tackle for our waters to date. There is a rich history of communities fighting ill-proposed mines, and we know it’s no easy or short-term endeavor. We support you in your efforts to continue learning about the potential operation and conserve your energy should there come a time to rally for public comment.  

However, it’s important to clarify that there is currently no concrete REE mining proposal in the upper Bitterroot. Our consultation with the Forest Service reveals that US Critical Materials, the mining company, was approved to carry out ‘hand tool exploration’ this summer but has yet to submit any other proposal or Plan of Operation for any next steps that may cause significant ground disturbance. 

If a Plan of Operation is submitted to the Forest Service, it would likely trigger an environmental review and public input. The Partnership will advocate for a thorough Environmental Assessment and provide input about the importance of maintaining clean water throughout the Bitterroot watershed by protecting our headwaters. For now, we’re following developments and staying in touch with equally concerned partners who are also keeping a close watch on the issue.   

The West Fork is Supremely Important in River Health 

As the headwaters of the Bitterroot, the West Fork provides a significant source of fresh, cool water to our River. The water stored in Painted Rocks is a critical pillar of the irrigation infrastructure which supports agriculture throughout the valley. The world-class fishery and native trout populations that live here are of equal importance. The health of all the valley’s residents depend on these headwaters remaining clean. For these reasons the West Fork is one of four main priority areas for BWP monitoring and project development over the next four years. 

We know that hard rock mines, like the proposed REE mine, can harm water quality and quantity, even after reclamation, and that mining companies like US Critical Materials have a track record of treating land and communities irresponsibly. The intrinsic long-term environmental damage caused by these mines cannot be undone regardless of the amount of funds expended on cleanup. Extracting REEs requires clean water and chemicals, posing contamination risks to nearby water sources. The potential mine would threaten native trout habitats, water quality, and the quality of life for West Fork residents and businesses. 

We’ll be ready to act alongside you and other community leaders in any effort we must to stamp out an irresponsibly proposed REE mining operation in the West Fork. Meanwhile, our 30-year commitment to working for clean, ample water and healthy habits throughout our entire Valley remains. We recently completed projects that will reconnect Westslope cutthroat trout populations along Threemile Creek and improve habitat for birds and fish along the East Fork.  In 2024 we will continue delivering conservation successes on public lands in partnership with the Bitterroot National Forest and on private lands with landowners in Willow Creek and Threemile, each effort improving water quality and wildlife habitat. 

To stay up to date with Sheep Creek Mine developments and to learn more about the threats we’re working to address today, and the projects we’ve completed to address water quality, visit and subscribe to our email newsletter.

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