Building a mine beneath Montana’s Cabinet Mountain Wilderness won’t imperil the region’s threatened grizzly bears, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.
The San Francisco-based court said that the grizzlies will be protected through an extensive mitigation plan required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The decision, which upholds a Montana judge’s earlier ruling, opens the door for the first development phase of the Rock Creek silver-copper mine to begin as early as 2013.
John Shanahan, president and CEO of Revett Minerals, said the Spokane Valley company is committed to spending $30 million over the mine’s life to meet the conditions of the mitigation plan. The mitigation includes relocating six female grizzlies to augment the Cabinet Mountains’ bear population.
“Grizzly bears and aquatic life can still flourish in the area,” Shanahan said. “We can cohabitate. We will not endanger the existence of wildlife.”
The Rock Creek Alliance, Trout Unlimited, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and several other environmental groups had challenged a U.S. Fish and Wildlife determination that the mine’s development posed “no jeopardy” to the federally protected grizzly population. In court documents, the groups also said that the Rock Creek Mine’s construction would hinder efforts to recover threatened bull trout in the Clark Fork watershed.
The 9th Circuit Court, however, said the mine would impact a relatively small portion of critical bull trout habitat. The court also said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s required grizzly mitigation was “so robust” that it would help the bears over the long run.
Revett has already purchased 273 acres of grizzly habitat as part of the required mitigation. Other requirements include public education to reduce human-grizzly conflicts plus money for bear monitoring, stepped up law enforcement to reduce the potential for poaching and management of road and trail access into bear habitat.
The Rock Creek Mine can’t open until Revett purchases additional grizzly habitat. The company must also put up a bond to cover the cost of mitigation programs throughout the mine’s life.
Jim Costello, the Rock Creek Alliance’s Montana director, said the mine opponents were disappointed by the ruling. But “this is certainly not the end of the line on contesting the Rock Creek Mine,” he said, noting that Revett still needs to get a number of permits.
The mine is expected to run for 25 to 30 years, producing about 6 million ounces of silver and 50 million pounds of copper each year. About 300 people would work there.
Mining companies have floated plans for the silver-copper deposit for three decades, but a series of lawsuits stalled the mine’s development. Revett bought the project in 1999. Shanahan said that Revett is preparing a supplemental environmental impact statement as the result of previous litigation.
Revett expects to complete that work next summer. If all goes smoothly, Shanahan said the supplemental EIS could get final government approval by the end of 2012, paving the way for the company to begin construction of a 7,000-foot evaluation adit in 2013. The adit would give Revett access to the ore body, kicking off 18 to 24 months of feasibility studies for future mine development.