The federal district court in Montana on Tuesday invalidated the federal government’s approval of the first phase of the Rock Creek Mine, a major copper and silver mine proposed beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwest Montana.
The court ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act by unlawfully ignoring the impacts of the full mine proposal on federally protected grizzly bears and bull trout. The ruling safeguards the most vulnerable grizzly bear population in the lower 48 states, threatened bull trout, and sacred and aboriginal lands of the Ktunaxa Nation from the mine’s impacts.
Earthjustice represented the Ksanka Kupaqa Xaʾⱡȼin, Rock Creek Alliance, Earthworks, Montana Environmental Information Center, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity in the lawsuit.
“We are gratified by the Court’s decision, which affirmed that the agencies cannot gamble with the fate of imperiled grizzly bears and bull trout by ignoring the full impacts of the Rock Creek Mine,” said Katherine O’Brien, an Earthjustice attorney who represented the plaintiffs.
“This is great news for protecting this precariously small grizzly bear population,” said Bonnie Gestring, Northwest program director for Earthworks. “It was disingenuous of the agency to consider only the effects of phase one of the mine, when its own documents show that full-scale operations would be reasonably certain.”
“Today is a victory for the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and all of the wildlife that call it home,” said Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains director at Defenders of Wildlife. “This decision gives one of the wildest mountain ranges in the Lower 48 a much-needed reprieve from the devastating impacts of a large mine.”
“We’re pleased the court has halted exploration for the Rock Creek Mine in the Cabinet Mountains,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Fish and Wildlife Service tried to underestimate how eventual mine construction and operation would impact grizzly bears. This blatant attempt to disregard the requirements of the Endangered Species Act risked disastrous consequences for imperiled grizzly bears and other wildlife in these wild lands.”
“The Rock Creek Mine poses a very serious threat to one of the last vestiges of truly wild country in the lower 48,” stated Derf Johnson, staff attorney with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “We’re pleased with the Judge’s order, which is clear that the government can’t downplay the major impacts this mine would have on endangered grizzly bears.”
“Halting the Rock Creek Mine is a win for the extremely vulnerable grizzly bear population in the Cabinet Mountains and for Montanans who do not want wild places destroyed for the benefit of extractive industry,” said Bonnie Rice, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club. “We are grateful to the Court for seeing through the Fish and Wildlife Service’s blatant attempt to ignore the impacts to grizzly bears and bull trout from a full-fledged mine in this wild part of Montana.”
“We are thrilled with this decision as it represents an important and timely reprieve for grizzly bears, bull trout, and clean water that would be irrevocably harmed by the Rock Creek mine,” said Mary Costello, executive director of the Rock Creek Alliance.
The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when a proposed project may adversely impact protected species. The Rock Creek Mine, proposed by Hecla Mining Company and its subsidiary RC Resources, would harm federally protected bull trout and grizzly bears.
Among other impacts, the Rock Creek Mine would bring hundreds of people into the remote project area and would involve mining and processing up to 10,000 tons of ore per day for as long as 30 years.
Hecla Mining Company is pressing to develop two massive mines — the Montanore and Rock Creek projects — beneath and adjacent to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwest Montana. The wilderness and adjacent National Forest lands are braided by high-elevation streams that are among the purest waters in the lower 48 United States and harbor vital populations of bull trout — a native fish species protected by the Endangered Species Act — as well as Westslope cutthroat trout and other sensitive, coldwater fish that are facing increasing threats in our warming world. The area also supports one of the last five grizzly bear populations that persist in the lower 48 today. A coalition of conservation groups and traditional cultural leaders within the Ksanka band of the Ktunaxa Nation have filed multiple lawsuits in state and federal court challenging unlawful permits for the proposed Hecla mines. In 2017, the federal district court in Montana invalidated the federal permits for the Montanore Mine on the ground that they too violated the Endangered Species Act.