Gold company looks to drill more in Centennials

A Canadian company that has been exploring a gold deposit in the Centennial Mountains in Clark County is seeking approval to expand to up to 140 drill sites.

The U.S. Forest Service is accepting public comment until mid-February on Otis Gold Corp.’s five-year exploration plan to expand its activities on a 12,000-acre site west of Kilgore and near the Montana border. It would include building about 10 miles of new, temporary road to access the proposed drill sites.

Some conservation groups are worried it could be bad news for grizzly bears and other wildlife in a few years if activity proceeds from drilling to a mine.

“A proposal for an open pit mine in the Centennial Mountains would have severe effects on wildlife movement through the area, and so we would be opposed to the development of a mine there,” said John Robison, public lands director for the Idaho Conservation League.

Otis acquired the property in 2008 and has been active there since then. It has a 100 percent interest in the federal lode mining claims in question, which are on Forest Service land.

“In the past several years we’ve been doing step-out drilling and infill drilling around the existing deposit,” said Craig Lindsay, Otis’ president and CEO. “This expanded exploration program we’re planning is going to be drilling at targets around the existing Kilgore Deposit.”

Lindsay said there are about 800,000 ounces of gold there. As well as the Kilgore Project, Otis is also developing another gold mine south of Oakley that includes part of Cassia County and a neighboring area of Utah.

However, the Centennial Mountains are a wildlife corridor, and this has some conservationists concerned. Notably the Yellowstone grizzly bear, which was federally protected until last year, could use the mountain range to connect the main grizzly bear habitat to the north, said Kim Trotter. Trotter is U.S. program director with Yellowstone to Yukon, an environmental group that works for free wildlife passage through much of the northern Rockies.

“It’s not just protecting Point A and Point B, but everything in between that links these areas,” Trotter told the crowd Tuesday evening at the Idaho Brewing Company.

Trotter was there with people from the Idaho Conservation League and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, talking about Kilgore and some other mining projects in Idaho and the risks of habitat destruction and pollution. Robison said their groups would monitor the Kilgore Project closely and urged people to contact the Forest Service to express any concerns.

“Nobody is going to do something extra unless you ask or demand, because the bar has been pretty low to date,” he said.

The focus for the next couple of years at least, Lindsay said, would be on exploration.

“The idea is to get the gold resource to a larger size prior to initiating any sort of mine permitting activities,” he said.

Lindsay said he expects the exploration to employ 15 people in 2018 between the geologists, drilling contractors and environmental studies. He said the exploration budget for 2018 would be between $4 million and $5 million, most of which would be spent in state, benefiting the equipment rental companies, hotels and the road-building contractor. Gold mining is a growing sector in Idaho, he said, giving examples of other companies that have been investing in it recently.

“A lot of Idaho-based miners and geologists have had to work out of state in the past 10 years because of somewhat of a decreased amount of exploration of mining activity in the state,” he said. “The folks that we work with are very happy with all of the new developments in the state because folks can work a lot closer to home.”

Lindsay said he has been keeping the environmental groups informed of his company’s plans over the past few years, taking them on site tours and working with them to mitigate the impact of the drilling.

“Certainly, I think it’s fair to say that Otis, in particular, has been implementing industry leading exploration techniques out at Kilgore with a real focus on limiting environmental impact,” he said. “We appreciate the concerns that these groups have with these types of activities, and we’re going to continue to work with them to address any of their concerns.”

Robison said the company and Forest Service have been “open and transparent.” He said the ICL is reviewing the current proposal to see if there are ways to minimize its impact. However, he said there is little ground for compromise on a future open pit mine.

“Obviously, the mining company is focused on the reserves in the ground and how to extract them, and we’re focused on what the environmental effects could be, based on what we’ve seen other mining projects do,” he said. “We would be very concerned about any movement toward an open pit cyanide heap leach mine in that area.”

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757.