A coalition of conservation groups filed suit today to protect bull trout and grizzly bears from a massive mine proposal in the heart of some of the last remaining undeveloped habitat for these species in northwest Montana. The lawsuit challenges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision that the proposed Montanore copper and silver mine would not jeopardize the survival or recovery of bull trout and grizzly bears, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The Montanore Mine, proposed by Mines Management, Inc. (AMEX: MGN), would transform a remote landscape in the Cabinet Mountains of northwest Montana into a large-scale industrial operation involving the mining and processing of up to 20,000 tons of ore every day for up to 20 years. The site of the proposed mine lies within and adjacent to a federally-protected wilderness that currently contains pristine forests, glaciated peaks, and rivers and streams that are among the purest waters in the continental United States. The proposed mine site and surrounding public lands offer some of the last remaining undeveloped habitat for critical populations of bull trout and grizzly bears that are hanging on by a thread because of habitat destruction, pollution, and human-caused mortality across their range.
Though the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the Montanore Mine would inflict substantial and irreversible damage on bull trout and grizzly bear populations already at risk of extinction, the Service ultimately disregarded its own findings and gave the Montanore Mine proposal a green light.
Today, the conservation groups Save Our Cabinets, Earthworks, and Defenders of Wildlife filed a lawsuit to overturn the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision in federal district court in Missoula, Montana. The groups are represented by Earthjustice.
“Bull trout and grizzly bears in the Cabinet Mountains are teetering on the brink of extinction, and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s own evidence shows that the Montanore Mine would push them over the edge,” said Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien. “The Service had no basis to conclude that turning these species’ habitat into an industrial mine site would allow them to survive and recover.”
“Grizzly bears and bull trout are an integral part of Montana’s wild places and mountain streams,” said Mary Costello of Save Our Cabinets. “The Montanore Mine would spoil the habitat in the Cabinet Mountains for these species and ruin the enjoyment of countless people who treasure Montana’s native fish and wildlife.”
“If mining companies are allowed to dewater wilderness rivers and streams that provide the last, best refuge for native bull trout, then what chances does the species have for recovery?,” said Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks. “Montana’s imperiled bull trout deserve a fighting chance.”
“The Cabinet Mountains are one of the few places in the lower-48 states where grizzlies and bull trout remain. The Montanore Mine would destroy vital habitat these species need to survive in the region,” said Jonathan Proctor, Defenders of Wildlife’s Rockies and Plains program director. “Defenders of Wildlife and many others have invested significant funding to reduce grizzly bear-human conflicts in the Cabinet Mountains region. The Montanore Mine would undermine all of that work.”
Read the complaint.
The Cabinet Mountains of northwest Montana offer one of the last remaining strongholds for bull trout and grizzly bears—species that are threatened with extinction across their range. Even in the Cabinet Mountains, bull trout already face a high risk of extinction due to habitat loss and fragmentation, competition from invasive species, and population declines that have left small remnant populations that are highly vulnerable to random extirpation. Grizzly bears in the Cabinet Mountains also have suffered substantial losses of habitat and declining numbers, leaving the population so small that extirpation is a very real risk. Every bear counts in this small population, particularly females, whose survival is critical to sustain and grow the population.
Against this backdrop of severely diminished populations, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the proposed Montanore Mine would cause substantial and irreparable damage to bull trout, grizzly bears, and their habitat. The Service found that the mine would permanently dewater streams on which bull trout depend, increase stream temperatures to levels that are intolerable for bull trout, pollute bull trout habitat with harmful sediment, and promote the intrusion of non-native fish that kill or compete with bull trout. Regarding grizzly bears, the Service found that the Montanore Mine would displace up to seventy-five percent of adult female grizzly bears in the Cabinet Mountains from their preferred habitat, worsen habitat fragmentation, and bring more than 800 new people into the heart of grizzly bear habitat, increasing greatly the likelihood that grizzly bears will be killed due to poaching and conflicts with humans.
But at the end of the day, the Fish and Wildlife Service dismissed these threats to bull trout and grizzly bears and issued a biological opinion contrary to its own findings. The Service asserted that the Montanore Mine’s effects on bull trout are too localized to matter and will not threaten the species’ persistence within the Columbia River Basin. Yet the Service’s most recent assessment reveals that the majority of bull trout populations across the Columbia River Basin are declining, and the Service cited no evidence that populations beyond the reach of the Montanore Mine’s harmful effects will be strong enough to sustain the species.
Regarding grizzly bears, the Service concluded that constructing the Montanore Mine would actually benefit the species because the mining company has promised to fund public education and other measures to reduce conflicts between bears and humans in the Cabinet Mountains region. While conflict-reduction programs have been a key component of grizzly bear recovery efforts, the Service’s conclusion that such measures are capable of neutralizing the risks posed by the mine and associated influx of eight-hundred-plus persons into grizzly country lacks any evidentiary support and conflicts with the Service’s own data.