Editor's note: This story has been modified from its original version to clarify that the aquifer that streams in the Centennial Mountains feed are not the headwaters of the Snake River.
KILGORE, Idaho — For 100 years, rancher Nick Hillman’s family has run cattle in the Centennial Mountains as miners came, looked and left.
Now a Canadian company is touting the nearby mountains along the Montana border as a world-class gold prospect. A contested exploratory drilling proposal is in the works for land above Hillman’s property.
For perspective, the drill sites are about 15 miles southwest of Montana’s Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and 10 miles east of Interstate 15. This is remote country in Idaho's least populated county.
Hillman, a Clark County Commissioner, is concerned by the exploratory drilling, but devastated by the thought of the worst-case scenario — an open-pit cyanide heap leach gold mine.
“They'd totally ruin the area that we live in,” he said. “I don't think that a Canadian gold mine company should come into my state, tear the hell out of things, and then leave.”
Canadian mining company Excellon Resources Inc. came to the nearby community of Kilgore, Idaho, in 2020 on a mission to put the town on the map, acquiring Otis Gold and its Kilgore project for $32.3 million in April, and subsequently increasing its holdings in the area by 28%.
To its investors, the company compares Kilgore’s nearly 1 million ounces in indicated and inferred low-grade gold ore to that which is being successfully extracted by the massive open-pit cyanide heap leach mine run by Kinross Gold on Round Mountain in Nevada.
Open-pit cyanide heap leaching was made illegal in Montana by ballot initiative in 1998, and the Kilgore project sits less than 10 miles from the state’s western border.
At the same time, the company has reported detecting higher-grade ore at depth, and says the area is prime for growth and expansion.
In a written statement to the Montana Standard, Excellon CEO Brendan Cahill said it is too early in exploration to say if mine development will be pursued, or to determine what method would be used. Neither Cahill nor Excellon senior project manager Phillip Bandy denied that open-pit cyanide heap leaching was a possibility should a mine go forward.
Meanwhile, the company’s exploratory drilling project was blocked in May 2020 when conservation groups successfully challenged part of the Forest Service’s environmental assessment for the project in District Court.
A new, revised draft EA is under review, and the battle for land, wildlife, water and gold in Kilgore rages on.
Excellon comes from the north, the conservationists from Idaho and beyond.
For most of the year, Hillman lives with his family under the mountain Excellon hopes to explore, and maybe mine.
“I’ve got to look at it every day in my life, and my kids and grandkids do," he said. "And that's the way people feel about it. This is something that's been there forever, and they don't want it tore down, and I don’t either.”
Hillman runs his cows in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest among deer, elk, moose and bear, through meadows and along streams that feed Idaho’s largest aquifer, a source of drinking water for 300,000 people and irrigation for Idaho’s famed farmland.
Hillman and his family are on the side of conservation groups who believe the new environmental assessment is inadequate. Now the Clark County community is working to figure out what to do next.
The Forest Service is required by The Mining Law of 1872 to handle permitting for those who stake mining claims on public national forest lands.
“Whether you like that law or not, it makes it so that the Forest Service can't just say no to a proposal,” said Diane Wheeler, Caribou-Targhee National Forest geologist. “It's our job to make sure that it's done in an environmentally safe manner. And we'll keep denying them until we feel like it's gotten to that point. But we can't just put our foot down and say no. We only have so much leeway with the law.”
It’s an outdated arrangement in more ways than one.
“When somebody comes and proposes like a special use permit for a ski resort or something like that, we can get cost recovery for the time that it takes us to analyze their proposal," Wheeler said. "But with exploration projects for gold like this one, there's no cost recovery. So we're doing this on our time.”
Conservation groups have long called the law outdated and disadvantageous for the country. As it is, they’re often pitted against federal agencies in their environmental quests to stop mines — whether the miners come from home or abroad.
The Idaho Conservation League and Greater Yellowstone Coalition won part of their case in court on the basis that baseline water quality data at one of the drilling areas, Dog Bone Ridge, was insufficient, as was the evaluation of the area’s Yellowstone cutthroat trout, a federally designated sensitive species.
The groups say the new revision to the draft is no good either.
The Forest Service submitted a new draft environmental assessment for 30 days of comment, the period for which ends today. As of Monday morning, Caribou-Targhee district ranger Bill Davis said the service had received 2,800 comments, most of them form letters through conservation organizations. Most target the idea of a mine, Davis said, and not the EA for exploration.
He said his own brother called him demanding to know why he was permitting a mine.
“Listen buddy, you need to read the documents, not listen to what you're seeing on Facebook,” Davis said.
Davis submitted an opinion article to the Jefferson Star newspaper in Rigby, Idaho, aimed at clearing up misinformation about the current Kilgore proposal.
For conservation groups, the exploration of a precious area by a well-funded company isn’t to be taken lightly, and the worst possible end-game is always pictured in their messaging — the disaster of Pegasus Gold’s Zortman-Landusky mines, the poster child for when open-pit heap leach mining went wrong.
A massive spill in 1987 dumped 51,000 gallons of cyanide solution onto lands and into creeks, causing the shutdown of the local community water supply. Afterward, Pegasus went bankrupt in 1998, leaving behind an endless cleanup, and a massive bill for the state of Montana. Montana banned open-pit cyanide heap leach mining in 1998.
Hillman’s niece, Roxanne Hillman Richmond, referenced Zortman-Landusky in her editorial to the Idaho Falls Post Register.
On Monday she addressed a meeting of the Clark County Commissioners in Dubois. She specifically responded to Davis’ editorial, where he emphasized that the EA in question is only for exploration — not for a mine.
In introducing herself to her uncle’s colleagues and members of the public gathered, she said she grew up on the ranch in Kilgore.
“As soon as I was old enough to swing a hammer, I was fixing fences,” she said.
“So needless to say, I'm pretty biased, and I'm pretty protective about Kilgore. But aside from that, I've lived in Utah for my adult life. And I kind of have a perspective that mining, when it happens, it happens fast, and it's expansive. And an entire mountainside can be destroyed in a matter of years,” she said, and went on to show a video of Cahill, Excellon’s CEO, saying that the Kilgore area is ripe for expansion to the north, south and west.
“It’s kind of like David and Goliath here,” she said.
There has been exploratory drilling on the mountain above Nick Hillman’s ranch for decades. The holes have regularly hit groundwater, and the proposed exploratory drilling is expected to hit groundwater again.
Hillman claims a creek on his property dried up as a result of past core sample drilling, and that over the last five years drilling led to a change in the water in his well.
“You can taste it,” he said.
ICL’s Josh Johnson has an educational background in geology. He said the baseline water quality data for Dog Bone Ridge is still insufficient.
To beef up the data for the new assessment, five new water monitoring sites were added, but only this past summer. Johnson said collecting a few samples over a single summer fails to account for the dramatic seasonal and annual variability in stream flow levels.
“The whole point of having a baseline for water quality is because we know that these areas, because there's gold there, because there's mineralization, they can be elevated in heavy metals to begin with,” he said, “And so you need to establish the natural baseline so that when the drilling activities start occurring, you have something to compare to so you know when the drilling activities are affecting the water quality."
Wheeler, the Caribou-Targhee geologist, said limited data from the new sites can be extrapolated using data from longer running stations at sites outside Dog Bone Ridge, resulting in adequate baseline data.
This is just one of the many nuances related to water that could be contested as review of the draft EA continues.
Water is also a chief concern of those worried about the possibility of an actual mine, where area disturbance would go exponentially beyond the maximum of 390 total holes at 130 drill sites in the proposed exploration.
The road to Kilgore is typically closed to all but snowmobiles until June, and ranchers and other residents retreat from the area before heavy snows.
Although the most recent area data from the Western Regional Climate Center is from the period of 1960 to 1977, it shows that in the month of March the Kilgore area had an average snow depth of 32 inches, and saw a total of more than 21 inches of rain annually.
WRCC’s station for Smokey Valley, Nevada, near the successful Round Mountain Mine shows that just 5.7 inches of snow and 6.57 inches of rain fell on average annually from 1949 to 2016.
All of that water is a concern for Jim Hagenbarth, a Kilgore-area rancher who supports exploration going forward.
Water has a way of spreading things around, good and bad.
Hagenbarth runs cattle with his family west of the proposed drilling area, and has ranch homes within a mile of the site. His family has raised livestock in this area of Idaho for more than 100 years, just like the Hillmans. He supports the proposed exploration because he believes in a “working landcape.”
“It's important that that we support developments of the minerals in the United States,” Hagenbarth said.
From conversations with friends who are mining engineers, Hagenbarth said he believes open-pit cyanide heap leach mining can be done safely, although he would have to make up his mind based on all the information available should a mine ever be proposed.
“Just because you live somewhere doesn't mean you should stop something really good for the whole county if they can do it properly,” he said. “We're a small county, we're starving to death, can't keep the schools open, can't keep the roads.”
Though he doesn’t believe mining’s the answer, Hillman too said the area could use an economic boost — the county’s ranchers included.
Hillman said around half the county’s 900 residents live in Dubois, and outside Dubois the principal work available is in ranching and farming.
For ranchers like Hagenbarth and himself, low cattle prices have made business tough the last few years, Hillman said, and the industry provides few job prospects to people outside ranching families. The winter is long, and buying cattle feed makes it difficult to turn a profit.
“Most of us in the cattle industry are just hanging on by our toenails,” he said.
A common argument against exploration is that recreation is flourishing around Kilgore.
Tony Huegel traveled Idaho for many years as a reporter, and today shares GPS tracks with those seeking to explore Idaho’s remote roadways on ATVs. For Huegel, seeing the Kilgore area packed with family tents and RVs in summer, and with hunters in winter, is reason enough to keep it undeveloped.
“It's almost idyllic,” he said of the area. “It's like a snapshot of Idaho the way it's supposed to be.”
Hagenbarth takes the opposite view.
“Recreation doesn't contribute hardly anything to Clark County except for bumpy roads," he said. “It's hard to support the infrastructure in the county, and all we have is recreation.”
The Kilgore project EA states: “Disturbance to grizzly bears appears unlikely because there is no evidence of presence.”
When Hillman and the other Clark County commissioners discussed the Kilgore project with the public at Monday’s meeting, people called out area grizzly sightings and rumors like bingo numbers.
The EA’s grizzly status is based on the fact that no radio-collared grizzlies were detected in the area from 2000 to 2019. Biologists have collared grizzlies in the Centennial Mountains over the years, an area conservation groups consider an important corridor for the bears. Grizzlies are designated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
A press release from Idaho Fish and Game dated June 30, 2018, noted the agency sought an injured grizzly in the West Camas Creek drainage near Kilgore, and another on July 24, 2018, detailing the capture of a grizzly near Kilgore.
In an interview, Hagenbarth said he saw a grizzly bear within a mile of the project area two years ago.
Forest Service officials say the EA covers the bases on grizzly bears, but members of the Clark County community present at Monday’s county meeting said failing to take into account the many local reports discredits the EA.
Jim Hagenbarth runs the family livestock business with his brother, David.
David is more skeptical of open-pit cyanide heap leach mining than his brother, but is still open to the possibility of some kind of mine because he feels the county could use the revenue.
“If they want to underground mine, fine. If they want to open-pit without heap leach, maybe. If they want to open-pit and heap leach, probably not,” he said.
He’s also skeptical an open-pit cyanide heap leach mine could actually take form in the area now that conservation groups like GYC and ICL have stepped in.
“I think it'd be a cold day in hell before the environmental community would ever allow an open-pit cyanide leach situation in that particular area,” he said.
Johnson, with ICL, said Excellon has invested enough to make him worry, though he could foresee them selling the asset to a bigger company more experienced with gold development.
As for Hillman, he said Excellon means business, and even exploration is unacceptable. Following discussion of the exploration project on Monday the county commissioners discussed banning open-pit cyanide heap leach mining by county ordinance.
He can even imagine a day when the company would offer to buy his ranch to advance its goals.
“But that's not in my genetics to sell that ranch,” he said.