Montana-Dakotas Mining and Minerals

With the combination of the awe-inspiring Northern Rocky Mountains in Western Montana and  the vast plains in Eastern Dakotas, the MT/ Dakotas BLM management area offers many opportunities  for those seeking precious or base metals, industrial minerals and , recreational opportunities for casual use.  This site is intended to help to explain BLM regulations and to provide more sources of information for various mineral types.

There are three basic types of minerals with respect to the permitting process on BLM Lands in the MT/Dakotas management area:

1. Locatable (subject to the General Mining Law of 1872, as amended).

Locatable minerals includes metallic minerals; some industrial minerals, such as gypsum; and a number of other nonmetallic minerals that have a unique property which gives the deposit a distinct and special value. A detailed description can be found at 43 CFR 3830, Subpart C.

2. Leasable (subject to the various Mineral Leasing Acts).

Leasable minerals includes the chlorides, sulfates, carbonates, borates, silicates or nitrates of potassium or sodium and related products,  phosphate, including associated and related minerals; asphalt in certain lands in Oklahoma; and gilsonite (including all vein-type solid hydrocarbons).

On acquired lands not administered as public domain, leasable minerals may also include hardrock minerals, such as base metals, precious metals, industrial minerals, and precious or semi-precious gemstones.

3. Salable, also called mineral materials (subject to the Materials Act of 1947, as amended). 

Mineral materials includes but is not limited to, petrified wood and common varieties of sand, stone, gravel, pumice, pumicite, cinders, and clay.

Locatable Minerals

The General Mining Law of 1872, as amended, opened the public lands of the United States to mineral acquisition by the location and maintenance of mining claims. Mineral deposits subject to acquisition in this manner are generally referred to as “locatable minerals.” Locatable minerals include both metallic minerals (gold, silver, lead, copper, zinc, nickel, etc.) and nonmetallic minerals (fluorspar, mica, certain limestones and gypsum, tantalum, heavy minerals in placer form, and gemstones). It is very difficult to prepare a complete list of locatable minerals because the history of the law has resulted in a definition of minerals that includes economics.

Types of Mining Claims:

Lode Claims cover classic veins or lodes having well defined boundaries and also include other rock in-place bearing valuable mineral deposits. Examples include quartz or other veins bearing gold or other metallic mineral deposits and large volume low-grade disseminated metallic deposits, such as Carlin-type gold deposits and copper-bearing granites. Lode claims are usually located as parallelograms with the side lines parallel to the vein or lode.

Placer Claims cover all those deposits not subject to lode claims. Originally, placer claims included only deposits of mineral-bearing sand and gravel containing free gold or other detrital minerals. By congressional acts and judicial interpretations, many nonmetallic bedded or layered deposits, such as gypsum and high-calcium limestone, are located as placer claims.

Mill Sites must be located on non-mineral land. The mill site may be located in the same manner as a lode or a placer mining claim. Its purpose is to either:

• Support a lode or placer mining claim mining operation; or

• Support itself independent of any particular claim by custom milling or reduction of ores from one or more mines. A mill site must either include the erection of a mill for grinding, crushing, flotation, or chemical processing of ores; or a reduction works for chemical processing of ores, siting of furnaces, and related facilities. This may include other uses reasonably incident to the support of a mining operation, including tailings impoundments, waste dumps, and leach pads.

Tunnel Sites are tunnels excavated to develop a vein or lode. They are also used for the discovery of unknown veins or lodes.

For more information concerning Mining Claims and Locatable Minerals please see the pamphlet “Mining Claims and Sites on Federal Lands.” 

Leasable Minerals

In 1920, the Mineral Leasing Act (MLA) was enacted, establishing governance for coal, petroleum, natural gas, phosphates, and certain other minerals.  These minerals were no longer subject to mining claims and became a leased commodity, with development done by a Federal coal lessee in compliance with the terms and conditions of the lease.

The BLM’s role is to conduct lease sales to ensure the public receives fair market value; administer those leases; inspect Federal and Indian use authorizations to ensure compliance with the terms and conditions of the leases; and provide pre-lease evaluations of mineral tracts when requested by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  The BLM also monitors production to ensure maximum economic recovery of the public’s coal resource and verifies that production for royalty collection by the Office of Natural Resources Revenue.

The BLM’s authority to manage the public’s coal resources comes from two laws -- the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, as amended, and the Mineral Leasing Act of 1947, as amended.

Regulations derived from these statues and from the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) are located in Title 43 of the Code of Federal Regulations, groups 3000 and 3400.  

Non-Energy Leasable Minerals

The BLM leases certain solid minerals such as phosphate, sodium, potassium, sulphur, and gilsonite on public and other Federal lands. In addition, some hardrock minerals, depending on their location, may be considered leasable. The BLM may also lease these minerals on certain private lands, provided the mineral rights are owned by the Federal government. 

The BLM will issue prospecting permits, under 43 CFR 3505, in areas where we do not know a mineral deposit exists. A prospecting permit gives you the exclusive right to prospect and explore for leasable mineral deposits. You may remove only material needed to demonstrate the existence of a valuable mineral. 

If during the term of the prospecting permit, the permittee demonstrates the existence of a valuable deposit of the leasable mineral for which BLM issued the permit, the BLM may issue a preference right lease to the permittee without competition. In addition, preference right leases have other requirements as outlined under the regulations at 43 CFR 3500.

Most of the minerals leased under this program are used to make fertilizer or feed stock (mineral supplement for livestock) or have other industrial processes. 

In areas where the Federal government acquired the land, the BLM may lease base and precious metals, such as uranium under this program.

Salable Minerals

How to Obtain Mineral Materials From BLM-Administered Federal Lands

Mineral materials include common varieties of sand, stone, gravel, clinker (known locally as scoria), clay, rock, and petrified wood. The major Federal law governing mineral materials is the Materials Act of 1947 (July 31, 1947), as amended (30 U.S. Code 601 et seq.). This law authorizes the BLM to sell mineral materials at fair market value and to grant free use permits for mineral materials to government agencies. It also allows the BLM to issue free use permits for a limited amount of material to nonprofit organizations. Public lands administered by the BLM can also include split-estate mineral rights, where the surface is private and the mineral materials are reserved to the U.S. government.

How Do I Purchase Materials From the BLM?

When small sales are made from an established community pit or common use area, contracts can be obtained “over-the-counter” from the BLM, usually on the same day.

Community pits and common use areas are established by the BLM to serve the needs of local communities while reducing the amount of surface disturbance in areas known to have a large public demand for mineral materials. Community pits involve more concentrated disturbance than common use areas. The BLM develops mining and reclamation plans for the community pits and coordinates disposals and operations. No one contractor has exclusive rights to the mineral materials in a community pit or common use area. Common use areas usually cover larger areas than community pits and typically involve less intensive surface disturbance (e.g., collecting boulders from the surface without mining). The designation of a common use area does not establish a superior right to the use of the land against other claims or uses, as occurs with the designation of a community pit.

The BLM must also determine whether there is competitive interest for the mineral material being sought. If so, a competitive sale will be advertised by BLM. When the sale is held, the interested persons may be required to submit sealed bids, oral bids, or a combination of both. The BLM may require information to show that you are able to meet the obligations of a contract. The BLM will make all sales on BLM standard contract forms and include any additional provisions and stipulations needed to conform to the competitive sale notice and to address environmental concerns or other site-specific issues.

There is no volume or weight limit for competitive sales. The duration of a nonrenewable competitive sales contract can be no longer than 10 years. The duration of a renewable competitive sales contract is also 10 years, and the BLM may renew such contracts for as long as 10 additional years, or for a shorter term if appropriate. There is no maximum to the number of times the BLM may extend a renewable contract if BLM finds that renewal continues to be justified.

Free use permits may be issued for collecting individual specimens of petrified wood weighing more than 250 pounds. However, the applicant must certify that the specimen will be displayed to the public in a museum or similar institution.

What Happens If I Remove Materials Without Authorization From the BLM?

Persons who remove mineral materials from public lands without a permit or contract are considered unauthorized users and in trespass. In addition, unauthorized users may be fined as much as $100,000 and sentenced up to 1 year in jail. This does not apply to the hobby collection of stone or petrified wood where reasonable amounts of these materials are taken without a permit for personal or nonprofit use, provided that such collection does not cause unnecessary or undue degradation.

The above information is from the 2002 pamphlet, “How to Obtain Mineral Materials From BLM-Administered Federal Lands.” P-340.

Split Estate

If you purchase property in many parts of the Rocky Mountain West, you may not be purchasing all of the surface and mineral estate, meaning the surface rights may be privately owned while the subsurface mineral rights belong to the Federal government.

These “split estate” situations are the legacy of the Stock Raising Homestead Act (SRHA) of 1916. The law allowed a settler to claim 640 acres of non-irrigable land that had been designated by the Secretary of the Interior as "stock raising" land. Mineral exploration was beginning to escalate and the Federal government opted to maintain the mineral rights to the land claimed under this law.

As a result, a landowner owns the surface rights for lands patented under the SRHA. The landowner has the right to develop these lands in the manner set forth by the Homestead Acts, as intended by Congress. This includes developing water sources and infrastructure associated with grazing and raising forage crops.

Mineral resources that were reserved in these patents belong to the United States. As the landowner, you do not have the right to sell the mineral resources from lands patented under the SRHA. These minerals are under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior and administered by the BLM. Generally, the owner of the surface estate may use, without the benefit of a sales contract or permit, minimal amounts of mineral materials for their personal use within the boundaries of the surface estate.

To determine the mineral ownership under your land, contact your local BLM office. Staff there will assist you determine if the minerals are Federally owned. You or a BLM specialist will check the master title plat for both surface and mineral ownership. You should also check the original land patent to determine under which Homestead Act your lands were originally patented. Some Homestead Acts only reserved certain minerals, where the SRHA reserved all minerals.

If you have already begun mineral extraction or removal without a permit, stop immediately. You may be in trespass. If you are unsure or have questions, please contact your local BLM office.

Suction Dredges

In most instances, BLM does not require a Notice of Exploration or Plan of Operations for a suction dredge with intake diameters of 4 inches or less. Under 43 CFR 3809.200 BLM will defer small (less than 4 inches intake diameter) dredging operations and permitting to the Water Protection Bureau of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).

However, owners and operators of portable suction dredges that discharge to state surface water must apply  for authorization of coverage under the Montana Pollution Discharge Elimination System (MPDES). Suction dredges with intake diameters of 4 inches or less can be authorized under the Suction Dredging General Permit (SDGP). Larger suction dredges do not qualify under the SDGP and require an individual MPDES discharge permit and may also require BLM Plans of Operations. Furthermore, the SDGP covers the discharge of sediment, only. The form and General Permit are available on the web.

Best Management Practices for Suction Dredges

Courtesy of  Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, the pamphlet “Montana placer mining BMPs (Best Management Practices): Guidelines for planning, erosion control, and reclamation, Publication 106” is now available online for free 

How to Look up Mining Claims

The BLM has established a new website for finding mining claim information which replaces Legacy Rehost 2000. The new  website, Mineral & Land Records System (MLRS), focuses on two areas including How to discover and search for  mining claim activity on public lands, and how to record new claims and how to pay for and manage your mining claims online.

General Land Records

The BLM has established the General Land Office (GLO) Records Automation website, which provides live access to Federal land conveyance records for the Public Land States, including image access to more than five million Federal land title records issued between 1788 and the present.

Montana Cadastral is an excellent and easy to use site for finding land ownership and status for the State of Montana.