A recent court decision may pave the way for the development of a controversial mine in central Montana. On Monday, Feb. 26, the Montana Supreme Court reversed a district court’s decision to block a copper mine on one of the tributaries of the Smith River—a waterway revered as one of the most stunning wilderness floats in the Lower 48


The fight over the proposed “Black Butte Mine” dates back several years. In 2020, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) greenlit the project, a 1,888-acre copper mine along Sheep Creek, 15 miles north of White Sulphur Springs Montana, despite public opposition. The mine was proposed by an Australian mining corporation currently known as Sandfire Resources America.  

Conservation groups resisted the project from the beginning, skeptical of Sandfire Resources America’s claims that its use of new technology would protect the environment. A coalition of groups including Montana Trout Unlimited, Montana Environmental Information Center, American Rivers, and Earthworks challenged the permit in court on the grounds that the mine’s environmental safety precautions wouldn’t adequately protect Sheep Creek and the Smith—and that its water treatment plan would unleash harmful amounts of nitrogen into the trout fishery.  

“This is the wrong mine, with the wrong drainage, and wrong ore body,” Derf Johnson of the Montana Environmental Information Center told the Montana Free Press in 2020. “There’s just too much at stake for putting a mine in such a highly reactive ore body into such a cherished watershed.”  

A district court initially agreed with the conservation groups, ruling unanimously in their favor. The MDEQ and Sand Fire Resources America appealed the decision, and the Montana Supreme Court heard the case on June 21, 2023, before making its ruling this week.  

The court ruled 5-2 in favor of MDEQ, essentially authorizing the mining permit. “Compiling an extensive record of scientific studies, expert examinations, engineering reports, testing, and comparison with other mining facilities around the world, and after considering a wide range of comments from members of the public…MDEQ made a scientifically driven permitting decision that was supported by substantial evidence,” wrote Justice Beth Baker.  

Conservation Groups Plan to Continue Fighting the Mine 

“We were very surprised and obviously disappointed by this ruling,” David Brooks, Montana Trout Unlimited Executive Director, tells Field & Stream. “The history of mining in Montana up to present day makes it clear that hard rock mines put at risk clean, cold water for trout fisheries.” 

While Montana Trout Unlimited and the other conservation groups can’t appeal this decision, they haven’t given up completely. The groups are challenging the proposed mine’s water rights claim.  

“The mine plans to pump about 805 acre-feet of water per year out of their mine works, but they only have water rights for less than half of that. They claim they’re only using less than half of the water that they pump out of their mines for beneficial use,” says Brooks. “We are saying that they need water rights for all of that water.” 

That lawsuit will be heard by the Montana Supreme Court on March 29, 2024. If the conservation groups are successful, it would force Sandfire Resources America to attempt to purchase those additional water rights—likely posing a serious roadblock its effort to develop the mine.  

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Montana Trout Unlimited is also pursuing another path of resistance: pushing the U.S. Forest Service to establish a mineral withdrawal on the public lands around the mine, which is currently planned on private land.  

“This would prevent them from expanding on surrounding public lands, which they have plans to do,” explains Brooks. “That would be an important protection, and we are circulating a petition asking the U.S. Forest Service to do just that.”