Center for Wildlife Information via AP
A grizzly sow and two cubs cross a meadow in Montana. A mining company says it will improve grizzly habitat if allowed to mine in Montana's Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the habitat plan is sound.
updated 10/16/2006 12:46:15 PM ET 2006-10-16T16:46:15

Grizzly bears stand to benefit if a copper and silver mine is developed beneath Montana's Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says in a rewritten opinion.

The proposed underground mine involves a "conservative approach" and mitigation measures, such as buying land to be protected as bear habitat, that would leave grizzlies in better condition than if the mine was not developed, the service said.

"We really think this is a good thing for bears," Mark Wilson, a Fish and Wildlife Service administrator in Helena, said Friday.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's findings are in a biological opinion rewritten after a federal judge last year sided with environmental groups that charged the agency conducted inadequate studies before finding the mine would not jeopardize bears and trout.

The agency Friday also endorsed mine measures for protection of sensitive bull trout. Both the trout and grizzlies are federally protected as threatened species.

Habitat spending planned
Mine developer Revett Minerals Inc. of Spokane, Wash., has proposed spending millions for wildlife habitat work to compensate for the company's Rock Creek mine in northwestern Montana. The corporate funding and its benefit to wildlife surpass what the Fish and Wildlife Service could accomplish alone, Wilson said.

Critics of the mine have included jeweler Tiffany & Co., which said the area is more valuable for wildlife than for minerals. Tiffany stated its position in a full-page advertisement in The Washington Post in 2004.

A lawyer in the firm Earthjustice, which represented the groups, said Friday he had not read the latest opinion, but based on what he knew about it, the findings appear flawed.

"The mine is in a disastrous location for the tiny grizzly bear population in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, and nothing in the new biological opinion changes that," Tim Preso said from Bozeman.

Revett's chief executive, William Orchow, said the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population needs help to survive and "any group that appeals this biological opinion will therefore be putting the ... grizzly bear population at further risk."

The federal agency said no mine construction may begin before at least six female grizzlies have been transplanted to the Cabinet Mountains area. Two of the six already have been placed in the Cabinet-Yaak, which has 30-40 grizzlies and provides what officials have characterized as outstanding habitat. The transplanting is intended to offset the potential loss of a female grizzly from mine activity.

The proposed mine mitigation includes Revett's purchase of 2,450 acres to be managed for the benefit of grizzlies, and the employment of bear management specialists.

Sediment and trout
Mine construction likely would increase sediment in Rock Creek and Revett would be required to monitor water quality, the Fish and Wildlife Service said. Indications of risk to bull trout would trigger consultation with the Forest Service about what action to take, the service said.

Overall, the mine-related conservation measures would improve the security of habitat, reduce human-caused deaths of grizzlies and provide long-term monitoring data for both bears and bull trout, said Mitch King, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Challenge of its earlier biological opinion has been just one of the obstacles to Revett's development of the mine. Critics' challenge of a Forest Service decision supporting the mine remains pending.

Revett spokesman Carson Rife called the latest Fish and Wildlife Service opinion "a major milestone" and said it draws on conservation measures unprecedented in the mining industry.

Orchow said Revett is seeking the agreements necessary to create a tunnel for underground exploration and testing. The work, which requires a $2.6 million reclamation bond, would last about two years and would be followed by a decision on whether to proceed with mine construction.

If Revett cleared all hurdles smoothly, mining could begin as early 2011, Rife said.

The mining operation, including construction and production, is projected to span at least 35 years.

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