Katie Fite crouched behind some waist-high sagebrush, and her dog Bell nestled in the plant’s cozy cavity to shield from howling winds.
It was the first Saturday in April, peak mating season for sage grouse on a remote stretch of the Oregon-Nevada border. From where Fite and her dog sat, they could see more than a dozen male grouse displaying their tail feathers and issuing their signature zip-popping call to bring all the girls to the yard.
All around the lek — the flat, open areas where sage grouse congregate during mating season — were wooden stakes marking where mining companies may one day scrape away this crucial habitat to get at the minerals contained in the cake-soft earth of the McDermitt Caldera.
The old supervolcano straddling the state line is laced with some of the highest concentrations of lithium in the United States, making it a prime target for miners and prospectors looking to feed a growing hunger for batteries to store renewable energy and power electric vehicles.
Related: How Oregon landed a lithium bounty
It’s also some of the country’s best remaining sage grouse habitat, which has declined precipitously in the past century.
“There’s still hope for sage grouse here, unlike many other areas,” said Fite, who’s monitored sage grouse for decades and now serves as public lands director for the conservation group Wildlands Defense. “But it’ll be a death knell for sage grouse out here if industrial mega-mining for lithium takes place.”
Just a few years ago, the McDermitt Caldera was off-limits to new mining claims to protect sage grouse. But rule changes under the Trump administration opened the door to extractive industry, and industry walked in.
Multiple companies have staked mining claims in southeast Oregon and are issuing bold statements about the region’s lithium prospects to lure investors. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is making a big push to build a stand-alone battery supply chain in the U.S., further filling the mining industry’s sails.
The U.S. is heavily reliant on foreign imports of raw materials used in batteries, including lithium. That leaves the supply chain, and thus the country’s transition off fossil fuels, vulnerable to geopolitical conflicts like the U.S. trade war with China and Russia’s war on Ukraine.
“Clearly, the U.S. needs guaranteed domestic supply,” said Lindsay Dudfield, executive director of Jindalee Resources Limited, an Australian company exploring a large lithium deposit in Oregon’s Malheur County. “And so you’ve seen bipartisan support for the development of critical minerals projects in the United States growing.”
Companies touting southeast Oregon’s mineral potential, including Jindalee, are several years away at the earliest from developing mines if they get to that point at all. Any mine would require state and federal approval that could face legal challenges.
But conservationists like Fite say the damage to sage grouse habitat has already started with exploratory drilling tearing up patches of sagebrush, and that any new mining would be devastating.
“This would represent a total, tragic loss,” Fite said. “And I believe it has to be stopped.”
Open for business
Sage grouse need sagebrush to survive. They use the plant for food, brooding and shelter. The birds do best in areas with continuous, abundant sagebrush and minimal to no human disturbance.
Excessive livestock grazing, oil and gas production, residential development, wildfire and mining have chewed away about half of the sage grouse habitat the American West historically supported.
Population declines sent the birds hurtling toward the federal endangered species list before 2015 when U.S. government agencies adopted alternative plans to try to save them.
Among other protections, the sage grouse plans recommended a “mineral withdrawal” to block new mining claims on 10 million acres of the best remaining habitat in the country — including the McDermitt Caldera.
Sarah Stellberg, a staff attorney for the environmental law firm Advocates for the West, said the decision to keep sage grouse off the endangered species list was predicated on preventing new mines on those acres, called sagebrush focal areas.
“The concern is that if you allow development to go forward that there aren’t actually enough concrete mitigation actions to protect the bird in areas that are being mined,” Stellberg said.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, under President Barack Obama, proposed the mineral withdrawal. That triggered a two-year period during which sagebrush focal areas were off-limits to new mining claims while the full proposal underwent environmental review.
Related: Sage grouse meets lame duck
But President Donald Trump’s first Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, made quick work of unraveling the sage grouse plans when he took office.
Under Zinke, the Bureau of Land Management allowed the temporary mineral withdrawal to expire and abandoned the environmental review of a permanent mineral withdrawal in 2017, saying “future mining is not a significant threat to sage grouse habitat.”
That decision opened the McDermitt Caldera for business. The industry has responded.
Jindalee currently holds the only permit to explore for lithium in Oregon, but at least two other companies — Aurora Energy Metals and ACME Lithium — have nearby claims they say could hold promising lithium deposits.
Advocates for the West challenged the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the mineral withdrawal in court and won. As a result, the BLM is again considering a proposal to block new mining claims in prime sage grouse habitat, but it’s unclear how doing so now would affect existing claims in southeast Oregon.
Stellberg said every bit of habitat disrupted by mining or exploration, especially in well-preserved areas like the McDermitt Caldera, sends sage grouse closer to Endangered Species Act protection.
“If this is where we’re going to be allowing mines to go forward, then we’re left with lower-quality habitat that just can’t sustain the number of birds that we need to allow the species to persist,” Stellberg said.
Drilling’s early toll
Fite slung a camera over her shoulder and set out on ranch roads to get an up-close look at the Jindalee mining claim, which covers thousands of acres on the Oregon side of the caldera north of McDermitt Creek.
The company drilled 11 holes in December to try to increase its confidence in the amount of lithium contained in its claim. So far, Jindalee estimates it has the second-largest known lithium deposit in the United States.
“We understand that there are no sage grouse leks on our claims,” Dudfield said in an email, adding that the company still does not drill in winter or spring to minimize impact on breeding.
Signs of sage grouse are everywhere in the claim area, from stray feathers poking out of the dirt to piles of the birds’ Cheeto-like scat. Not to mention the nearby leks. Fite says neither Jindalee nor the government agencies regulating its activity have taken the time to look for sage grouse on the claim.
Over the course of multiple visits, Fite has documented new roadlets created by heavy machinery, piles of dead sagebrush and trash. She called the damage from exploratory drilling “classic habitat fragmentation” that, even if legal and permitted, is terrible for the sage grouse. Breaks in the continuous carpet of sagebrush can, for instance, invite fire-prone invasive plants like cheatgrass.
“They’re gonna destroy the habitat in the exploration alone before they even get to the mining,” Fite said.
Fite faults the BLM for allowing mineral exploration to go forward in such sensitive habitat when the agency’s charge under the 2015 federal sage grouse plans is to protect the birds. BLM spokesperson Brian Hires confirmed in an email that Jindalee’s claims are within a sagebrush focal area, the agency’s label for the best of the best sage grouse habitat.
However, because the Trump administration scrapped the proposed mineral withdrawal in 2017, “these lands have been open” to new mining claims, Hires said.
BLM regulations say any company exploring for minerals just needs to notify the agency of planned drilling activity at least 15 days before work begins. That’s if the amount of land disturbed is less than five acres. Anything more than that, and the BLM must approve a more detailed plan accounting for impacts to land, water and wildlife.
Dudfield said all of the company’s exploration activities are reviewed by BLM and the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries to ensure compliance with environmental regulations. He added that Jindalee is conducting environmental and cultural studies to help it avoid sensitive areas.
What’s law got to do with it?
Experts argue mining regulations have not kept up with the industry.
The law governing most mining and prospecting on public lands is 150 years old. Thea Riofrancos, an associate professor of political science at Providence College and an expert on lithium extraction, says the General Mining Law of 1872 is woefully out of date when it comes to the environmental and social impacts of modern mining.
“It actually explicitly encourages prospecting in ways that can harm the ecosystems of public lands,” Riofrancos said, adding that those lands are often in close proximity to Native American reservations.
Riofrancos has closely studied mining in Latin America, which includes some of the world’s biggest producers of raw battery materials such as lithium and copper.
As governments there have pushed to expand the mining industry, she’s found it’s come at a tremendous environmental and human cost. Riofrancos said that though the U.S. has stronger protections for the environment, labor and people, mining is just as disruptive here as it is anywhere.
“We’re looking at a very invasive economic sector that is among the most environmentally destructive in the world,” Riofrancos said.
Riofrancos said the U.S. needs to envision a transition off fossil fuels that minimizes the amount of material coming out of the ground.
President Joe Biden has been cautious about encouraging new mining even as he’s taken a number of steps to support battery production in the U.S., most recently invoking a Cold War-era law to speed up the process.
Biden said at a White House event on critical minerals in February that the nation needs to “avoid the historical injustices that too many mining operations left behind in American towns.”
The Department of the Interior has formed a working group to potentially overhaul the federal mining law. Some lawmakers, including Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, are promoting bills to improve cleanup operations at former mine sites and encourage more recycling of battery materials.
During a virtual town hall in March, Wyden said new mining projects can be carried out “without throwing environmental laws in the trash can.”
Long road ahead
Several abandoned mines dot the McDermitt Caldera, including the Opalite mercury mine constructed in the 1920s. Warning signs stand before gaping pits, crumbling structures and huge piles of toxic waste.
People used to haul away truckloads of the contaminated gravel to use as fill for roads and driveways in the border town of McDermitt and on the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, eventually requiring a $1.2 million Superfund cleanup.
The mine predated most environmental regulations in place today, but mineral extraction itself is still extremely damaging — and in some cases done at a much larger scale. Opalite is a speck relative to the acres upon acres of adjacent mining claims.
“This is tiny compared to the devastation that would be wrought by lithium mining here,” said Fite, standing at the old mine’s gate.
Achieving climate goals like electrifying vehicle fleets and increasing renewable energy production will require lithium and other raw materials. Some in Oregon and elsewhere in the country are eager to see the jobs and economic development that would accompany a new mining boom.
Many conservationists acknowledge that some new extraction may be necessary to meet future demand for these materials, but they’re urging government officials to be extremely cautious about where new mines are located.
Fite says mining in southeast Oregon, even for a metal as critical to fighting climate change as lithium, would be disastrous.
“You don’t save the planet by tearing up intact wildland ecosystems,” Fite said.
The flurry of mining claims and exploration on the Oregon-Nevada border has galvanized conservation groups like Fite’s and Native American tribes. They’re lining up to defend the landscape from new mining, particularly the Jindalee project and the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine in Nevada.
Dudfield estimates Jindalee is at least five years and a lot of work away from proposing a mine if it ever does.
“At any fork in the road, there can be a roadblock that stops you,” Dudfield said. “The lithium price could fall. There could be some sort of permitting issue that arises. And so we can’t just flick a switch and produce lithium immediately.”
Sage grouse could be a big roadblock.
The birds have continued to suffer, despite efforts to save them. A report published last year by the U.S. Geological Survey says the sage grouse population has dropped 80% since 1965, and about half those losses have come in the past two decades alone.
Jindalee has paused its mineral exploration in southeast Oregon until summer, and sage grouse are holding court on the sprawling high desert landscape. For now, the McDermitt Caldera still vibrates at daybreak with the ploinking song of this iconic Western bird.