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Conservation groups sue US Forest Service over gold exploration

In September, the government agency approved a proposal by the Canada-based Kore Mining Ltd. to not only drill for gold but to build roads on public land.

(CN) — Four conservation groups filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday in an effort to stop an exploratory gold drilling operation in California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains.

In September, the government agency approved a proposal by the Canada-based Kore Mining Ltd. to not only drill for gold but to build roads on public land. According to the plaintiffs — the Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Watersheds Project, Friends of the Inyo, and the Sierra Club — the mining exploration may have a devastating effect on the local habitat, including the bi-state sage grouse, an iconic bird famous for its mating dances whose population has dwindled in recent years.

“This drilling project will cause exactly the kind of noise and commotion that make bi-state sage grouse abandon their habitat,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “It’s appalling that the Forest Service is willing to push these beautiful dancing birds closer to extinction for a toxic mine.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Environmentalists also worry the drilling will impact water that feeds into the Owens River, which supplies water for Los Angeles. The river and the nearby Hot Creek are also home to the tui chub, an endangered fish in the area.

“Degrading the Owens tui chub’s streams threatens this endemic fish, which is already on the brink of extinction,” said Laura Cunningham, California director at Western Watersheds Project, in a statement.

In the lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of California, the conservation groups charge that the government failed to conduct a proper environmental analysis, as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act. The Forest Service used a shorter and less thorough analysis which, according to the lawsuit, “severely limited public review of the project.”

Although the government has said the drilling will impact less than an acre of public land, conservation groups assert the project’s 12 drilling pads may “puncture the regional groundwater aquifer,” according to the complaint.

But the biggest fear, for environmentalists, is what happens if the mining company finds gold.

“The exploration is the first step in developing a full scale mine,” said Anderson.

A call to Kore Mining for comment was not immediately returned.

The proposed drilling site is in the Long Valley Caldera, one of earth’s largest calderas — large depressions in the ground caused by volcanic eruptions.

“Long Valley is an important place that needs conservation protection, not a gold mine,” said Wendy Schneider, executive director of Friends of the Inyo. “The area provides critical wildlife habitat for struggling species, it is culturally significant to local tribes, and important for the recreational tourism economy in Mammoth.”

Environmentalists are most concerned over the fate of the bi-state sage grouse, which the lawsuit describes as “gravely imperiled,” with perhaps only a few thousand still alive. According to the civil complaint, “The sage-grouse is a ground-nesting bird known for its famous mating dance performed on breeding grounds called leks. The species has high site fidelity and birds return to the same leks and seasonal habitats year after year.” Conservationists worry that if miners scare the bird away from its breeding ground, the bird may face extinction.

The bird has been the subject of much debate between industry groups and conservationists. In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to classify the bird as “threatened,” only to withdraw that designation two years later. Conservationists sued the government over that decision. The government agency was poised to classify the sage grouse, once again, as threatened, only to have the decision reversed, once again, in the first months of the Donald Trump administration.

But the mining exploration plan has less to do with the current president, and more to do with the price of gold, which has surged over the last few years to more than $1,700-an-ounce (although it was as high as $2,000-an-ounce last year). Still, exploratory drilling remains very much a gamble for companies like Kore Mining. Environmentalists say the mining company is gambling with the sage grouse.

“It will take decades and decades to have the [environmental] disturbance heel over,” said Anderson.

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