Suction dredgers and the state of Oregon could be facing a showdown next year when motorized dredging will be banned throughout the vast majority of the Rogue River Basin and elsewhere.
The Oregon Legislature failed to pass new dredging rules in the last session, setting up a 2016 ban on dredging in wild salmon spawning and rearing habitat, which includes the Rogue, Applegate and Illinois rivers.
Some mining advocates plan to violate the moratorium and even intend to push state officials' collective noses in it over belief the ban violates federal law.
"I, myself, have no interest in abiding by it," said Rick Barclay, president of the Galice Mining District, which has butted heads with the state on myriad dredging and mining issues.
Barclay said the mining district plans to hold a "Dredge-In" somewhere on the Rogue next summer, during which bands of miners will operate their suction dredges in defiance of state regulators and police.
"The serious miners are going to mine, and they'll say to the state, 'You want me, you come get me,'" Barclay said. "'You don't have the resources and the wherewithal. So drop dead.'
"We'll see how this plays out," he said.
In 2013, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 838, which detailed current restrictions, capped the number of dredging permits offered annually in Oregon, and limited some of the times, locations and manner for how dredgers operated until the 2015 Legislature could grapple with permanent rules.
Under the bill, the upcoming moratorium would ban suction dredging within wild salmon and steelhead spawning habitat in creeks and rivers deemed "essential salmon habitat."
"It's effectively a prohibition on suction dredge mining in the Rogue, Applegate and Illinois rivers, with very little exception," said Russ Stauff, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue Watershed manager.
The exceptions in the Rogue Basin downstream of Lost Creek Lake would be small headwater streams where ODFW biologists have not documented wild salmon or steelhead spawning or rearing in them, Stauff said.
"Those aren't areas where we've seen interest in suction mine dredging before," said Stauff, who served on a state panel that has worked on dredging rules in salmon streams that made recommendations to the Legislature last session.
The moratorium as written is to remain in effect until 2021. Stauff said he expects to see the issue resurface when the Legislature reconvenes in February.
Suction-dredge mining employs a floating vacuum to suck gravel from a stream bottom. Materials vacuumed by the dredge then go through a sluice to allow miners to strain out gold and other heavy metals, while sand, silt and other fine materials are discharged into the water.
Wild-salmon advocates say the process damages spawning grounds and rearing habitat. Miners have argued that current laws already protect salmon and their habitat, and they have argued that no peer-reviewed study on suction dredging proves it ruins salmon habitat.