Recreational mining and panning is allowed on "open" federal land. Many of the good gold-bearing placer streams are patented, which means they are private lands not open to public use. Of the public lands that are open to mining, some 17,000 unpatented mining claims are in existence. The mining claim provides the right of the claimant to search for and develop minerals. The recreational miner or panner should not go onto another person's claim for prospecting or panning without the claimant's permission.
The BLM does not maintain a listing of federal lands that are open and available for claiming or recreational use, so you will need to identify a specific area of interest and then determine if the area is open to mineral entry and location by referencing their maps. BLM maps reflect the ownership of surface and mineral estates and are reasonably correct, but you should verify the current status once you have determined a specific area of interest. You will need to confirm if the minerals are still federally owned and if the area is open to mineral entry and location by providing the BLM with the legal land description (township, range, section and quadrant of section).
Once you have determined that an area of federal minerals is open to mineral entry and location, you will need to determine if the area already has existing claims. You may request a computer-generated report from the BLM of the area you wish to enter. The report should contain any active mining claims located within the specific township, range, section, and quarter section. Additional information on the report should include claimant name, claim name, the BLM assigned serial number, date of location, and the lead file serial number. You may also request copies of the certificates of location and/or the location maps, which are submitted by the claimant, by providing the BLM with the lead file serial number that is listed on the report.
A recreational miner with a pick, shovel or gold pan does not need a special permit on BLM land in Montana. A person using a suction dredge in Montana should get a permit from the Water Protection Bureau, Department of Environmental Quality. The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the US Army Corps of Engineers may also require permits for suction dredging.
To encourage better mining methods, the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology has recently published Special Publication 106, which describes Montana Placer Mining's Best Management Practices. You may also contact the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology for information on Montana's state regulations and laws. Their office may also be able to provide you with more specific information on gold panning and recreational use.
Some areas in Montana that have historically been very noteworthy in terms of gold finds, or that are still popular for recreational level recovery include Confederate Gulch draining out of the Big Belt Mountains into Canyon Ferry Reservoir north of Townsend: Ninemile Creek drainage east of Missoula/Frenchtown; upper Libby Creek, where there is a public panning area (no power tools or sluices); Rock Creek; Wolf Creek; Upper Fisher Creek; Little Cherry Creek; Troy (Yaak River); Noxon; the Crazy Mountains; Bridger Canyon and Virginia City /Alder.
The website offers fabulous interactive maps for a very nominal fee that can greatly assist you in determining where the hot areas are and who’s claimed what. To find claimable land anywhere in the USA, try