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Bears, mine can coexist, feds say

Federal authorities have given a green light to a controversial mine in the Cabinet Mountains of Montana, saying a struggling grizzly population of 10 to 15 bears will be protected from the mine’s negative impacts through extensive mitigation.

On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a “non-jeopardy” biological opinion for the Rock Creek Mine proposed by Revett Silver Co. of Spokane Valley.

Human activity from the underground silver-copper mine will result in the direct death of one adult female grizzly during the mine’s 35 years of operations, according to agency estimates. In addition, bears are likely to leave their habitat in the Rock Creek drainage during the construction of the mine. However, $34 million in bear protection efforts financed by Revett will more than offset the loss, federal officials said.

Grizzlies in the Cabinets are threatened by small numbers of reproducing bears and high rates of human-caused mortality. The $34 million mitigation effort is among the most ambitious plans devised to reduce conflicts between people and bears, said Mark Wilson, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena. The effort will help the grizzlies gain a stronger foothold in the rugged mountain range on the Idaho-Montana border, resulting in a net increase to the population, he predicted.

“We believe that we have crafted a document that allows both for necessary development and at the same time preserves the wilderness and lifestyle values that are so important to northwestern Montana,” Wilson said.

The proposed Rock Creek Mine would tunnel underneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area to reach what Revett officials describe as a world-class silver and copper deposit.

The mine would employ about 325 people annually, producing an estimated 6 million ounces of silver and 53 million pounds of copper each year. At today’s prices, the mineral output would be worth about $245 million annually.

“It’s a major milestone for us to get this ruling,” said Carson Rife, Revett’s vice president of operations.

To offset harm to grizzlies, Revett will acquire 2,400 acres of prime bear habitat near the mine through purchase or conservation easements, ensuring that the land isn’t carved into rural ranchettes at some future date. The company will also pay for the salaries of two grizzly bear management specialists who will work for the state of Montana, a law enforcement officer to reduce poaching and human-bear conflicts, and monitoring of bear populations.

The state of Montana also plans to release six female adult grizzlies to the Cabinets before the mine opens to boost the breeding population. The transplanted bears will be “berry-eaters” from the region around Glacier National Park, able to easily adapt to similar terrain and food sources in the Cabinets, biologists said.

Friday’s biological opinion is the third issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Twice, the courts have ruled that the agency underestimated the mine’s effect on grizzly recovery efforts.

Even the loss of one or two adult female grizzlies could devastate efforts to recover the population, a federal judge ruled in 2005. The Cabinets are part of the Cabinet-Yaak Recovery Zone – one of five target grizzly recovery areas in the lower 48 states.

The 2005 ruling also said that the mine posed a risk to threatened bull trout. Wilson said that the new biological opinion addressed deficiencies in earlier opinions, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service still expects to go back to court to defend its work.

Tim Preso, a staff attorney with Earthjustice in Bozeman, had not read the 600-page biological opinion on Friday afternoon. His organization sued Fish and Wildlife over the previous biological opinion.

“Our position has been and remains that this mine is located in a disastrous location for this tiny grizzly bear population,” Preso said.

“We know the drainage where the mine would be located is in the range of two female grizzly bears, which are like pure gold in that ecosystem where so little successful production occurs,” he said.