A summer visit gives a glimpse of places that could be forever altered by the Montanore Mine.
A plan to develop a massive silver and copper mine beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwest Montana threatens to transform one of the region’s wildest places for centuries to come.
The proposed Montanore Mine would operate for up to two decades, extracting 20,000 tons of ore each day from tunnels bored beneath the wilderness. The project would also require construction of miles of high-voltage electric transmission line, an impoundment to store up to 120 million tons of mining waste, a wastewater treatment plant, and the paving of roads and clearing of trees.
A 35-mile expanse of glaciated peaks, the Cabinet Mountains is an intact wild ecosystem.
The region supports a diversity of native wildlife including mountain goats, bighorn sheep, pikas, wolverines, moose, elk, deer, wolves, mountain lions and Canada lynx.
And the Cabinet Mountains provide one of the region’s last remaining strongholds for bull trout and grizzly bears—both of which are threatened with extinction and protected by the Endangered Species Act. The grizzly bear population in the Cabinet Mountains and adjacent Yaak valley is one of only five populations remaining in the lower-48 United States. It is essential for the species’ recovery.
Logging, mining and construction of dams and roads have already irreparably damaged bull trout habitat throughout the region. But the streams originating in the Cabinet Mountains still support some of the last viable populations of migratory bull trout in the region, essential to bringing back the species.
The process of extracting silver and copper will pollute bull trout habitat with sediment and with water that is too warm for bull trout, and make reaches of wilderness streams run dry.
The killing of even a single bear would increase the population's risk of extinction.
The Montanore Mine project would bring more than 800 people into the heart of grizzly bear habitat, greatly increasing the threat that grizzly bears will be killed due to poaching and conflicts with humans. In addition, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found that the Montanore Mine would displace up to three quarters of the adult female grizzly bears from their preferred habitat.
Overall, the agency found that the mine would cause substantial and irreparable damage to threatened species and their habitats.
Yet in March 2014, the Fish & Wildlife Service released biological opinions for bull trout and grizzly bears that gave the mine a green light, contrary to the agency’s own findings about the project’s effects. Earlier this year, the U.S. Forest Service also approved the mine in reliance on the flawed biological opinion.
Representing Save Our Cabinets, Earthworks and Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice has filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Montana to overturn the agencies’ conclusions that the mine would not endanger the survival or recovery of grizzly bears or bull trout.
“Every analysis of the Montanore Mine has shown that it will inflict irreversible damage on the Cabinet Mountains, ” says Katherine O’Brien, the lead attorney on the case. “Our state and federal agencies’ disregard of that evidence and insistence on pushing through the mine approval, whatever the cost, is irresponsible and unlawful.”
Attorneys in the Northern Rockies office are filing legal briefs in the case in winter 2016 and anticipate a hearing in federal court in 2017.
The Northern Rockies Office is located in Bozeman, Montana.
Wild lands and wildlife that have been eliminated from much of the world still exist in the Northern Rockies region. Earthjustice's attorneys take on cases that focus on protecting large, intact ecosystems, and seek to build ecosystem resilience by reducing pressures caused by oil and gas development, logging, road building, and off-road vehicle traffic. Learn more.