Rare plant species standing in the way of Idaho moly mine

It's a familiar story for mine developers, when their projects overlay or sit near to sensitive ecosystems. Environmental groups state their intention to protect the animal or plant species at risk, sometimes taking legal action to oppose the project. Many times they are successful, especially with the strict regulatory framework found in the United States, where baseline studies are known to take years and mine approvals are exceedingly rare.

In Idaho, a classic confrontation between a mining company and environmentalists is shaping up at the CuMo project located in Boise National Forest. There, American CuMo Mining (TSXV:MLY) is aiming to develop a molybdenum mine from what the tiny, $10.9-million market cap explorer says is "one of the largest deposits of molybdenum, copper and silver in North America near Boise, Idaho." According to its website, "The Company is advancing its CuMo Project towards feasibility and its goal is to establish itself as one of the world’s largest and lowest-cost primary producers of molybdenum."

However before it gets there, American CuMo will have to satisfy government officials that the project will not have an adverse effect on a rare plant species in Boise National Forest: Sacajawea's bitterroot. Named after a native American who accompanied Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their expedition to the Pacific Ocean from 1804 to 1806, Sacajawea is an endangered plant that grows at 5,000 to 9,500 feet in elevation. The plant produces white flowers in early spring and spends most of its life in a dormant state.

"Knowing the Grimes Fire and fire suppression activities directly affected the area, the Forest Service nonetheless concluded the project would have no significant impact on LESA [Lewisia sacajaweana] without conducting the recommended re-evaluation."

"An Idaho native, this rare and beautiful plant occurs nowhere else in the world but central Idaho. Just over two dozen populations of Sacajawea's bitterroot are known to exist, roughly three-fourths of them on the Boise National Forest. Scattered populations also occur on the Payette, Sawtooth, and Salmon-Challis National Forests," the Forest Service states on its website.

But it's not only American CuMo that three environmental groups targeted in 2011 in an effort to stop the project; that year, the Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United and Golden Eagle Audubon Society sued the Forest Service after it approved the project, arguing that the service had not adequately analyzed the project's impacts on groundwater. The environmentalists prevailed, with the court finding the Forest Service had studied only surface water. A supplemental environmental study was carried out, and the Forest Service re-approved the project.

But that wasn't the end of it. The same three environmental groups sued again, repeating their claim that the study of the impacts on groundwater were still insufficient and that the science relating to Sacajawea's bitterroot was incomplete.

Fast forward to today, when a judge in a U.S. District Court sided with the environmental groups and ordered the Forest Service to do the required studies to get a more complete picture of the Sacajawea's bitterroot population. Judge Edward Lodge chastized the Forest Service for failing to sufficiently analyze the project's impacts on the plant- and also, not evaluating the impact of a 2014 wildfire on the vitality and prevalence of the species.

"The Forest Service recognizes the baseline data needs to be re-established following the 2014 Grimes Fire but instead of compiling and analyzing that data up front, the Forest Service has incorporated those NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] steps into the project itself," Judge Lodge wrote. "This approach puts the cart before the horse by prematurely asking for approval of the project before the necessary baseline data and analysis are conducted. NEPA demands that the Forest Service analyze a project's impacts before it is approved, not as part of the project itself."

"Knowing the Grimes Fire and fire suppression activities directly affected the area, the Forest Service nonetheless concluded the project would have no significant impact on LESA [Lewisia sacajaweana] without conducting the recommended re-evaluation," his judgment continued. "This is made all the more troubling by the forest service's recognition of the rareness of the LESA plant, its location in the project area, and the increasing and notable risks to its viability." American CuMo says the Grimes Fire was unrelated to project activities.

A news summary of the case states that American CuMo plans to explore for minerals on about 2,800 acres of Forest Service land near the headwaters of the Boise River. The plans include drilling up to 259 holes on 137 drill pads, 1,500 to 3,000 feet deep.

In a statement published today, American CuMo Mining chose to focus on the other part of Lodge's judgment relating to the groundwater issue, which sided with the Forest Service as having done an adequate study.

"The Court finds the Forest Service’s analysis and conclusions regarding groundwater satisfy NEPA. The Forest Service has complied with the Court’s prior order and addressed the concerns stated therein with regard to groundwater. Therefore, the Court upholds the Forest Service’s SDN/FONSI as to the NEPA challenges relating to groundwater," according to the judgment.

American CuMo strikes a tone of vindication in its press release, stating that:

"The court therefore affirmed the Forest Service’s determination that the work proposed at the CuMo site will have no significant effect on the groundwater and thus the Boise River located over 35 miles away." The company also noted that the court "found no problems with the overall mitigation plans" and that the CuMo project is the only occurrence where detailed plant counts of Sacajawea's bitterroot have ever been done.

"Company representatives have begun visiting other areas and have noted many large populations at these sites located many miles from the CuMo site," states the press release, which if true, could contradict the findings of the Forest Service that three-quarters of the plants are found in Boise National Forest.