In the face of a lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today withdrew its approval for a huge copper and silver mine that would tunnel below a wilderness area in northwest Montana's Kootenai National Forest. The agency's action puts the proposed Rock Creek Mine on hold while federal biologists reevaluate the project's threat to imperiled grizzly bears and bull trout.
The Rock Creek Mine would create a major industrial facility - including the mine itself, a railroad station, pipelines, a power line, a tailings treatment plant and associated infrastructure - operating 24 hours a day for an estimated 35 years adjacent to and directly below the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area. The wilderness and adjacent National Forest lands provide the last available habitat for severely imperiled Cabinet Mountains grizzly bears and bull trout. Biologists estimate that there may be as few as 11 grizzly bears remaining in the Cabinet Mountains and nearby Yaak River area.
"The approval for the Rock Creek Mine amounted to a death warrant for the tiny grizzly population in the Cabinet Mountains," said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who represents the conservation groups challenging the mining plan. "This decision pushes back the imminent threat of extinction, but only temporarily. The Cabinet Mountains grizzly remains on death row as long as the Rock Creek Mine remains in the works."
The Rock Creek drainage, where the mine would be located, also constitutes crucial habitat for one of the most important remaining populations of threatened bull trout.
The decision withdrawn today is the Fish and Wildlife Service's Biological Opinion for the Rock Creek Mine. The Endangered Species Act required the Service to prepare a Biological Opinion to determine whether the Rock Creek Mine would jeopardize the continued existence of the Cabinet Mountains grizzly bear and bull trout. Projects that jeopardize the existence of a species are prohibited.
In this case, the Service's first priority in crafting its Biological Opinion was not to protect grizzly bears and bull trout, but instead to accommodate a politically driven schedule for approval of the mine. Internal agency correspondence establishes that federal biologists rushed their Biological Opinion to meet a deadline agreed upon by Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Ralph Morgenweck and then-Montana Governor Mark Racicot. As Morgenweck stated to his staff in one internal memo, "this time we will meet the schedule ¼ I won't go back to the Governor again with a missed deadline." The result was a rushed Biological Opinion that failed to meet the basic requirements of the Endangered Species Act, prompting a lawsuit by conservation groups last August.
"The Service's withdrawal of the Rock Creek Biological Opinion amounts to an admission that the agency failed to do what the law requires," said Louisa Willcox of the Sierra Club. "However, the Service can't fix the problem by rewording its faulty conclusions. The ship is sinking for grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak area, and the Service needs to do something more than just rearrange the deck chairs."
"We hope that the Service will give science priority over politics this time around," added David Bayles of Pacific Rivers Council. "The Biological Opinion withdrawn today is just one of many examples where the Fish and Wildlife Service would have allowed an important fish population to go extinct. It is the Service's job to do something for these imperiled species, not to turn its back on them."
In addition to destroying grizzly bears and bull trout in the Cabinet Mountains, the proposed Rock Creek Mine would pollute rivers, lakes, and drinking supplies including the Clark Fork River and Lake Pend Oreille.
"No amount of tinkering around the edges by the Service will alleviate a basic fact: this mine will kill grizzly bears, ruin critical fish habitat, degrade drinking water, and compromise tens of millions of dollars of abandoned mine restoration work on the downstream Clark Fork River," said Mary Mitchell of the Rock Creek Alliance, an Idaho and Montana organization working to stop the mine. "No one has the right to pollute our communities' drinking water and ruin our quality of life."