A Nevada-based mineral company has announced plans to develop a mine near the headwaters of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River in western Montana. If approved, the project could extract billions of dollars worth of rare earth minerals, mining officials recently told the Missoulian. The proposed mine—which would operate on public lands managed by the United States Forest Service (USFS)—has drawn scrutiny from multiple conservation groups, including Trout Unlimited (TU) and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA).
Rare earth elements or REEs are used in a host of products that include smartphones, LED lighting, wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars. The minerals are also used by the defense industry in the manufacture of guided missile systems.
The Biden Administration has announced its intention to prioritize rare earth mining, citing a critical need to decrease American dependence on China for the production of REEs. According to U.S. Critical Materials Corp., the company that holds the mining claims, western Montana contains the highest quality rare earth deposits in the United States. The mining claims are centered around a waterway called Sheep Creek, which feeds directly into the West Fork of the Bitterroot River.