A Utah company is going ahead with plans to explore for "rare earth elements" on the headwaters of the Bitterroot River, a step that may eventually lead to the mining of the Sheep Creek deposit.

As we reported back in March, U.S. Critical Metals Corporation believes there are significant deposits of praseodymium and neodymium in the area, which is 38 miles south of Darby on the West Fork of the Bitterroot. Those are the types of "rare earth elements" that are increasing demand for the production of high-tech products, including everything from phones to electric vehicles.

Word of the company's interest in the site first surfaced last year, and in March, Bitterroot National Forest officials said they were still waiting for a formal application from the company, known as a Notice of Intent.

This week, Bitterroot National Forest managers said it had received that NOI from U.S. Critical Materials and U.S. Critical Metals to conduct exploratory work on the site, which was first discovered back in 1953.

The area has been sampled off and on since the early 1960s, and is at the northern end of a string of what is believed to be "rare earth" deposits that extend from the Southern Bitterroot Valley south into Idaho. It's also not the first time a company has done exploratory work in the region. Another company did sampling north of Salmon, Idaho a decade ago without resulting in lode development.

Sampling will last into October

The Forest Service says the "Sheep Creek Columbite Deposit Mine Site" is a continuation of sampling that took place last year. The agency had already determined the level of work, which includes sampling with hand tools, mapping and sampling of adits, ground surveys, and surveys from the air by helicopter or drone, isn't significant enough to require a full operational plan.

That plan is what would trigger a more complete review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Forest Service points out that "processing locatable materials is non-discretionary", meaning mining companies have the mineral rights to conduct "surface operations", which could include occupancy of the site, and "processing."

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