The South Fork Salmon River is one of Idaho’s most ecologically important watersheds. The river and its tributaries like the East Fork South Fork provide critical habitat for Chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout. The surrounding mountains provide important denning habitat for wolverines. Much like a younger, scrappier sibling of the Middle Fork Salmon River, the South Fork also provides world-renowned whitewater recreation opportunities. Sadly, the East Fork South Fork suffers from historic mining pollution with the Stibnite mining area in its headwaters, and the area faces another huge threat with a newly proposed project – the Stibnite Gold Project. Mining company Perpetua Resources is in the advanced stages of permitting a massive open-pit cyanide vat leach mine at the Stibnite site, raising alarm for all that rely on and enjoy this area. In a series of blogs, we investigate the impacts of this project on our beloved public lands, water, fish and wildlife, public health, and recreation opportunities.

Deep within Idaho’s west-central backcountry, a common ridgeline separates the South Fork Salmon River watershed from its prom queen sister, the mighty Middle Fork. Mere feet of earth and rock distinguish this swath of Wild from its internationally revered neighbor, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Despite their geographic intimacy, the fates of these two river drainages are agonizingly disconnected – with the South Fork Salmon River watershed facing the threat of a cyanide vat leach gold mine called the Stibnite Gold Project. ICL believes the area is worth more than its weight in gold when looking at the benefits it provides to fish, wildlife, and people alike.

South Fork Salmon River. John McCarthy photo.

In short, the Stibnite Gold Project, as proposed by Perpetua Resources, would:

  • use up to 20% of the water in a stretch of the East Fork South Fork Salmon River that supports endangered salmon, steelhead, and bull trout habitat for mine site operations
  • transport over 9 million gallons of hazardous fuels, chemicals, and lubricants through river corridors and sensitive headwaters streams annually
  • construct 15 miles of new roads within designated roadless areas
  • double the footprint of the existing area of disturbance
  • place 100 million tons of materials behind a 400 foot-high tailings dam

Between now and January 10th, the Forest Service is accepting public comment on the permit application for the Stibnite Gold Project. The question of whether it is wise to use Idaho’s natural amenities and lands of aboriginal significance for such purposes is one of the most consequential natural resource discussions Idahoans have faced in decades – and we must not get it wrong. Perpetua Resources, formerly known as Midas Gold, first submitted its mining plans for this area in 2010. In the 12 years since, we’ve learned much about the potential adverse impacts of a project located amongst such rich biological, cultural, and recreational resources.

Stibnite Gold Project site. EcoFlight photo.

Along with detrimental impacts to fisheries, water quality, air quality, and recreational opportunities, the Stibnite Gold Project also poses threats to wildlife.

Wildlife will likely be displaced from the 3,423 acres of direct disturbance and indirectly from increased noise and lights. Of particular concern is the construction of 15 miles of new road through Inventoried Roadless Areas. There will be 3,150 hazardous material vehicle trips annually, increasing the likelihood of vehicle-wildlife collisions:

“wildlife will be affected by construction noise, traffic, and activities likely resulting in displacement of wildlife to areas away from the analysis area.” 

“some species sensitive to human presence may not return to the area for years after the mine is closed”.  (SDEIS p. 4-460).

For over 25 years of the project’s lifespan, there will be year-round mine traffic. Nearly 40 miles of remote USFS roads will be transformed into an industrial backcountry highway, with an average of 50 to 65 heavy vehicles using the route daily. Fifteen miles of this new road will be constructed in a designated “roadless” area, with some sections running only yards from the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Noise from operations would be audible up to almost two miles away. In other words, just the construction plans alone will dramatically alter this special place and the wildlife that lives there.

Many sensitive forest animals use this rugged country. 

The species most vulnerable to large, landscape-level disturbances, such as those posed by Stibnite Gold Project, is the North American wolverine. Thanks to over 10 years of local research using radio collars, remote cameras, and reported sightings, there is significant, well-documented scientific evidence on how wolverines are currently using the South Fork Salmon River and adjacent watersheds. Wolverines have had a consistent presence in the project area, and multiple wolverines of both genders are known to be residents and presumed to be breeding. The area also provides a travel corridor to habitat farther east into the Sawtooth Mountains, where wolverines also reside. 

Wolverine. Ed Cannady photo.

This highly reclusive species is dependent on deep, reliable snowpack and isolated denning terrain. Any activities that reduce or fragment habitat or cause changes in behavior may pose significant risk to their continued existence in the mountains of west-central Idaho. As climate change continues to render some lower elevation habitat unsuitable for wolverines, it is vitally important to minimize other effects of human activities within this part of their range. 

Wolverines are a Forest Service sensitive species and a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act.  The Forest Service is supposed to avoid taking actions that would contribute to the listing of wolverine or impacting critical habitat, which the Stibnite Gold Project does.

Additionally, 16 other “focal” species, such as fisher and goshawk, are named as Regional Forester Sensitive Species (mammals, birds, and reptiles/amphibians) from the Intermountain Region of USFS and within the analysis area. Big game animal such as mule deer and rocky mountain elk, song with an array of other critters also call this sensitive area home.

Rocky Mountain fisher. USFS/USDA photo.

So far we have not seen any habitat mitigation or project design measures crafted by either Perpetua Resources or the US Forest Service that will prevent adverse  impacts to sensitive wildlife in the SFSR watershed. We are asking the Forest Service to develop additional alternatives, design features, and mitigation measures to reduce impacts to wildlife. 

Wildlife do not recognize boundaries on maps – they move throughout the landscape. The South Fork Salmon River watershed provides an important linkage between areas like the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and the Middle Fork Salmon River corridor to the Secesh and Needles Recommended Wilderness Areas and down to the Main Salmon River. 

If you have similar reservations about chasing gold in such a sensitive environment, we encourage you to make your concerns known to the Forest Service by submitting a comment on the project before January 10th. 

If you’d like more information on writing comments and this issue, check out our first blog of the Stop Stibnite series, or sign up for alerts on how you can help protect the South Fork Salmon River watershed. Stay tuned for more blogs on how the Stibnite Gold Project would harm fisheries, recreation, and public health in the area.