Small-time gold-diggers are hoping to strike it rich off placer gold in the Red River, a tributary of the South Fork of the Clearwater River.
Flecks of gold tend to collect at the bottom of the stream bed, requiring a vacuum-cleaner type of dredge to bring them to the surface.
But those plans may conflict with the needs of threatened fish species in the area.
Gay Richardson and Rob Heitzman of Elk City, Idaho, and Ed Kelly of Pasco are seeking permission from the U.S. Forest Service to dredge for gold in the river south of Elk City.
While recreational gold dredging is popular in the area, not many people apply for commercial dredging permits.
Commercial gold dredging involves using suction hoses larger than 5 inches in diameter, said Jo Ellis, Forest Service geologist.
The three men, who have a mining claim along 1,590 feet of the Red River, plan to spend five years dredging the stream bed to a depth of about 3 feet. More than 4,400 cubic yards of gravel would be moved and then returned to the stream bed.
While recreational dredging is allowed during a 45-day period in the summer, the commercial operation would operate year-round, Ellis said.
That could affect threatened spring and summer chinook salmon and steelhead trout, which recently was listed as an endangered species. Bull trout, too, are found in the Red River and are a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Dredging raises concerns about destruction of eggs and spawning areas, increased turbidity of the water and loss of pools and other stream features that make good fish habitat, said Greg Servheen, an environmental specialist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
The summer recreational dredging period was established to avoid the time when the fish are spawning.
Servheen said a second commercial dredging permit is being sought in search of placer gold on the South Fork of the Clearwater. That dredging would move 7 to 8 yards of gravel an hour and operate from June 1 to Oct. 15.
If the dredging proposals move forward, it won’t be the first time fish have had to make way for mining in the area.
“There has been a vast amount of mining in that system,” Servheen said. “A lot of the South Fork has been turned over. They basically dug up the whole river or stream channel in some cases.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TO COMMENT The Nez Perce National Forest is taking public comment on the Red River mining claim, known as the Genesis, until Feb. 20. Comments should be directed to district ranger John Bisbee, Red River Ranger District, P.O. Box 416, Elk City, Idaho 83525.