In the winter, snowshoes are the best way to navigate a swath of undeveloped, wooded, privately-owned land between Monico and Pelican Lake in Oneida County. The simple forest roads that exist are snow-covered and unplowed.
In late January, Badger Minerals, a Michigan-based subsidiary of a Canadian company, announced plans to drill several holes on this tract, seeking to learn more about minerals under the snowy surface.
Some of those holes, which would likely average a depth of 400 feet, would be within a few thousand feet of the Wolf River.
If it happens, it would be the first mining-related exploratory drilling in Oneida County since at least the 1980s, and the first in Wisconsin since drilling in 2012 at the Bend deposit in Taylor County. In 1997, the last loads of copper and gold ore were hauled were hauled from the Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith. That’s the last time any actual metallic mining took place in Wisconsin.
Badger Minerals declined an interview for this story, but consultant Tracy Benzel provided responses to written questions. You can read those full responses here. Benzel wrote a partner, Great Lakes Exploration, started evaluating data for the site in 2016.
It’s called the Schoepke site for the town in which it lies, and it’s part of a band of buried volcanic rock created about 1.8 billion years ago.
That band extends from the Upper Peninsula to western Wisconsin, roughly along the Highway 8 corridor, said Ann Kipper, a DNR Deputy Division Administrator and mining expert.
“This band of mineralization contains sulfide minerals like zinc, copper, lead, silver, and gold in various concentrations across this widespread area,” Kipper said.
It’s the same band that produced 181,000 tons of copper as well as gold and silver at the now-closed Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith.
The Schoepke site has been explored before.
The mining company Noranda drilled there in the 1970s, but Benzel said little is known of that work. However, he called the presence of mineralization in cores that survived “encouraging.”
Badger Minerals proposes to drill ten holes to learn more about what’s below. The drilling process requires water, and in filings with the DNR, the company said it plans to draw water from the Wolf River and Stockley Creek. The creek is a waterway a few feet wide that winds near some of the proposed drill sites.
But the company doesn’t have the green light for drilling just yet.
It’s been granted a state license, but the DNR’s Kipper said the agency needs more information on things like water withdrawal, usage, and stormwater before Badger Minerals can act.
At the same time, her department is working on implementing an overhaul of the state’s metallic mining law, which was enacted by Republicans in 2018.
“There were all kinds of things that got changed. Now, we’re rewriting the mining rules so that they incorporate the changes to the mining law and also modernize the rules because they’re pretty old,” Kipper said.
The Schoepke proposal is just for drilling. Any potential mine is still a long way off under the new system.
“In a general sense, I think it is easier to get a mining permit, but it’s still very difficult to get a mining permit,” Kipper said. “There’s a lot of work that has to go into showing the methods of operation and that they will not be detrimental to the environment.”
Before drilling even starts, Badger Minerals also needs a county permit, and Oneida County just rewrote its mining code, as well.
“This is the first exploration permit in Oneida County underneath 9.61, our ordinance,” said Oneida County
Planning and Zoning Director Karl Jennrich. “It is a learning curve for them and it’s a learning curve for us.”
In a way, Jennrich is starting from scratch as Badger Minerals goes through the permitting process.
“They wanted to even get the form from us for the exploration permit. We hadn’t even developed it yet. I did develop it with the help of corporation counsel,” he said.
The county planning committee will review the application once it’s complete.
We don’t know if drilling will be approved, and we don’t know what form a potential mine would take.
Benzel of Badger Minerals said he doesn’t have enough knowledge to comment on whether it would be an open-pit mine, but John Coleman has a guess.
“If the main deposit is at 400 feet depth, then I think the only feasible thing would be an open-pit mine, but at this point, we don’t know that,” said Coleman, the Environmental Section Leader for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.
“The environmental impact of an open-pit versus an underground mine are very different. Open-pit mines generate a lot of waste rock. They have a larger footprint. The open pit is exposed to the environment,” he said.
If an open-pit mine were dug near where drilling is now proposed, it could be within a few thousand feet of the iconic Wolf River.
“The Wolf River is an important resource for our member tribes,” Coleman said. “It has wild rice there immediately adjacent to the exploration.”
Tribes also harvest walleye in nearby waters, the site is within five miles of the Sokaogon Chippewa reservation in Mole Lake, and the Menominee Indian reservation lies downstream on the Wolf River.
“That gives them a very strong vested interest in those resources being healthy and sustainable,” Coleman said.
Menominee Environmental Program Coordinator Doug Cox said the tribe is monitoring the situation closely with potential concerns.
Benzel, the company representative, wrote any metallic mine would be an “economic boon” to Wisconsinites involved, but would also provide the state with environmental pride, knowing metals residents use are locally sourced. Meanwhile, Benzel said everyone should demand thorough and environmentally sound mining regulation.
If the proposed drilling leads to mining, it will be far from immediate.
Even if everything goes just right, Benzel said it would be at least ten years away.
Kipper, the DNR leader, is quick to point out a drilling proposal is simply a preliminary step.
“Exploration drilling is very, very early on in the process and does not mean there will be a mine,” she said. “If somebody was interested in mining one of these deposits, there would be far more exploration before they would be applying for a mining permit.”