Eight conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, filed suit against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) over the agency's approval of the Rock Creek Mine abutting the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area in Montana. The proposed mine threatens grizzly bears and bull trout in the region with extinction. Both species are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
"By signing off on the Rock Creek Mine, the Fish & Wildlife Service has issued a death warrant for the Cabinets' grizzlies and trout," said Louisa Willcox of Sierra Club.
The groups' lawsuit targets FWS's "biological opinion" sanctioning the Rock Creek Mine. The mine would extract 10,000 tons of copper and silver ore a day for 35 years. While the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Department of Environmental Quality have not yet issued permits for the mine, the biological opinion sanctions the mine's damage to threatened and endangered species. The Forest Service and Department of Environmental Quality are expected to decide whether to issue permits for the mine this fall.
The mine would affect over 7,000 acres within the habitat of the tiny Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear population. As mining, logging, and other human activities have eroded the bears' habitat, the population has sharply declined. Since 1999 ten bears have died in the Cabinet-Yaak. The FWS estimates that as few as eleven bears might remain, a number that experts agree, puts the bears on the verge of extinction. The mine could end all hopes for their survival.
The groups believe that FWS has not done enough to avoid that danger. "It's the mine or grizzly bears," said Sanjay Narayan, an attorney for Earthjustice. "Rather than protect the bears, the agency is sticking its head in the sand."
FWS's biological opinion also acknowledges that the mine could eradicate bull trout in Rock Creek, one of the last bull trout strongholds in the lower Clark Fork River basin. The agency brushed aside these concerns and decided that the Rock Creek bull trout population could go extinct since there were bull trout elsewhere in the Columbia River Basin.
"The Fish & Wildlife Service is allowing bull trout to be driven to extinction one stream at a time" said Scott Yates of Trout Unlimited. "The agency needs to look at the big picture." Mr. Yates noted that considerable resources have been directed toward restoring bull trout populations in the Lower Clark Fork and that Rock Creek is a vital component of the Lower Clark Fork's habitat. Those efforts will be wasted if this mine becomes operational.
The groups are particularly concerned with the poor environmental track record of the Sterling Mining Company which would operate the mine. "Some of the principals of Sterling Mining Company have been involved in former mining operations with a disastrous legacy of pollution," said Mary Mitchell of Rock Creek Alliance. "When those operations went bankrupt, they left the citizens of Montana and Idaho to foot the bill for the cleanup."
Conservationists fear that FWS's Rock Creek decision is another sign that the Bush administration doesn't intend to protect grizzly bears. Earlier this year, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton cancelled plans to reintroduce bears into the Selway-Bitterroot in Idaho. "The Bush Administration abandoned the Selway-Bitterroot reintroduction because it said it wants to protect existing grizzly bear populations," said Cesar Hernandez of Cabinet Resource Group. "These bears are in desperate need of protection. It's time for Secretary Norton to put her money where her mouth is."
The groups bringing suit are Rock Creek Alliance, Cabinet Resource Group, Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, Idaho Council of Trout Unlimited, Pacific Rivers Council, Mineral Policy Center, and Alliance for the Wild Rockies.