Conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, filed suit today challenging federal approval of the Rock Creek mine in the heart of the last remaining grizzly bear habitat in Northwest Montana’s Cabinet Mountains. The proposed mine would remove 10,000 tons of copper and silver ore per day from under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area, seven days a week, for 35 years. The resulting loss of over 7,000 acres of habitat would be devastating to the 15 or fewer bears that survive in the Cabinet Mountains.
The mine, which would discharge up to three million gallons of waste water a day into the Clark Fork River, also threatens to wipe out Rock Creek’s threatened bull trout population.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that the Rock Creek mine could spell extinction for bull trout in Rock Creek and for the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population. However, the Service willingly wrote off Rock Creek’s bull trout and approved the mine in hopes that a limited amount of “replacement habitat” would offset severe impacts to grizzly bears. The problem is that grizzly bears are already using most of the suitable habitat in the Cabinet-Yaak. “The Service’s plan may look good on paper, but it isn’t going to make a difference for bears on the ground,” says Louisa Willcox of Natural Resources Defense Council. “Bears will be kicked out of 7,000 acres and they will have nowhere new to go and make a living.”
The first time the Fish and Wildlife Service put forward its mitigation plan for the Rock Creek Mine, in December 2000, conservation groups represented by Earthjustice filed suit in federal district court in Montana. The Fish and Wildlife Service responded by withdrawing its approval of the mine. However, in May of this year, the Service again announced its determination to let the mine go forward.
“Fish and Wildlife just dusted off their old opinion and gave the mine the green light,” said Liz Sedler of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, “But they still haven’t come up with a plan that will keep grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak and bull trout in Rock Creek.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population is endangered due to its small size alone. Grizzly bears have not fared well in the wake of mining, logging, road-building and other human activities that have encroached into grizzly habitat. Today, these bears are hemmed in by human development on all sides. Another huge mine located in the narrow Cabinet Mountains range threatens to permanently fracture the Recovery Area, making extinction just a matter of time. “The truth is these bears urgently need more secure habitat, not less, and certainly not another mine,” said Cesar Hernandez of Cabinet Resource Group.
Fish experts are equally concerned about the Service’s failure to protect bull trout. “Fish and Wildlife is assuming that you can lose any number of local bull trout populations, but this is a threatened species,” said David Bayles of the Pacific Rivers Council. “We can’t afford to keep signing off on extinctions, because this fish is in trouble everywhere.”
The plaintiffs in the litigation are the Rock Creek Alliance, Cabinet Resource Group, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, Idaho Council of Trout Unlimited, Pacific Rivers Council, Mineral Policy Center, and Alliance for the Wild Rockies.