Building a silver-copper mine underneath the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness Area won’t jeopardize the local grizzly bear population, federal officials say.
In an opinion issued this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the Montanore Mine’s operations would result in the estimated loss of one federally protected grizzly, but mitigation required of the mine’s owners would more than make up for the loss.
Owners of the proposed mine will be required to acquire nearly 5,000 acres of grizzly habitat at risk for development. Other mitigation requirements include hiring a grizzly bear specialist and law enforcement officer to work in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, converting some Forest Service trails to nonmotorized use and purchasing bear-proof containers for campgrounds.
The Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem on the Idaho-Montana border is one of six areas in the continental United States where the federal government is committed to restoring grizzly populations. About 42 grizzlies inhabit the area, according to a recent DNA study.
Spokane-based Mines Management Inc. has been working since 2005 to permit the Montanore project. The company’s stock rose 15 percent in trading Wednesday after the news was announced, closing at $1.25 per share.
However, “this is still a long-term project,” said Douglas Dobbs, Mines Management’s president.
The biological opinion is an important milestone, but federal agencies must also issue a final environmental impact statement and record of decision before the project could move forward, Dobbs said.
The Montanore Mine would be located about 15 miles south of Libby, Mont., employing about 350 people over a mine life of at least 15 years, according to company documents.
Grizzly mitigation is similar to the measures required for the nearby Rock Creek project, which also would tunnel underneath the Cabinet wilderness area to extract silver and copper. The Rock Creek deposit is owned by Revett Minerals of Spokane Valley.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials evaluated the Montanore Mine’s effect on threatened bull trout populations, saying that mining excavation would lead to permanent changes in groundwater flows, including less water in Rock Creek and the East Fork of the Bull River. Despite the localized impact to bull trout, the mine shouldn’t jeopardize populations in the Lower Clark Fork or Kootenai River, Fish and Wildlife officials said.
Changes in hydrology are among the concerns that environmentalists have about the Montanore project, said Jim Costello, Montana director for the Rock Creek Alliance. The East Fork of the Bull River has a healthy bull trout population, and part of it is in the wilderness area, he said.
Costello hadn’t seen the biological opinion but said the two proposed mines would have overlapping detrimental impacts on the environment. The mines’ surface operations would be located outside the wilderness area, with mineral extraction occurring beneath it.
Mines Management’s Dobbs said the Montanore project has strong support in Western Montana, where many communities have struggled to rebound from loss of timber jobs. The mine’s operations would be located in Lincoln and Sanders counties, which had respective unemployment rates of 16.5 percent and 14.7 percent in February.