BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service violated environmental laws by failing to adequately consider potential harm to Yellowstone cutthroat trout in a Canadian mining company’s plans to expand its search for gold in eastern Idaho, a judge has ruled.

U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill on Wednesday ordered the Forest Service to examine how exploratory drilling by British Columbia-based Otis Gold Corporation could affect groundwater and possibly fish.

The company’s Kilgore Project covers about 19 square miles (50 square kilometers) on Forest Service land and land managed by the state of Idaho in Clark County about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Idaho Falls.

The company says the area contains about 825,000 ounces (23.4 million grams) of gold. The company in a summary of its plans says it would like to get the gold by digging an open-pit mine.

Such a mine would require additional approval from the Forest Service.

The Forest Service in August 2018 approved the expansion of the exploration part of the project that includes 10 miles (16 kilometers) of new roads and 140 drill stations.

The Idaho Conservation League and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition filed the lawsuit in November 2018 contending the exploratory drilling could pollute groundwater and surface water.

The groups also said the drilling would harm grizzly bears, whitebark pine, Yellowstone cutthroat trout and Columbia spotted frogs.

Winmill ruled the Forest Service didn’t violate environmental laws in determining the exploratory drilling wouldn’t overly harm grizzly bears, whitebark pine or Columbia spotted frogs.

However, Winmill found the Forest Service hadn’t done an adequate analysis involving groundwater quality in the Dog Bone Ridge drainage, home to Yellowstone cutthroat trout. The trout are considered a sensitive species facing threats to its population or habitat.

“The Court’s ruling affirms that the Forest Service must fully assess impacts to water and sensitive species before approving mining exploration,” said Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West, a legal firm that is representing the environmental groups. “There should be no doubt: Water is more precious than gold in Idaho.”

The U.S. Department of Justice, which defends federal agencies in lawsuits, didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry from The Associated Press.

Craig Lindsay, president and CEO of Otis Gold Corp., didn’t immediately return a call from the AP.

Otis Gold Corporation is one of two British Columbia-based companies hoping to mine for gold in Idaho with open-pit mines. The other is Midas Gold, which wants to expand two open pits and create a third in an area about 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of McCall.

That area has been heavily mined for a century and Midas Gold says it will restore the area as part of its mining plan. The company’s plans are in an environmental review process.

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