Grizzly bears will not be severely impacted by proposed mining operations around the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared in April.
But Brian Peck begs to differ.
“I’m not totally surprised by their conclusion even though it doesn’t follow the science,” said the Montana-based wildlife consultant who analyzed the agency’s biological opinions on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
His point-by-point analysis of the FWS opinion concludes that one mine would be bad for Cabinet grizzlies, and two would be a slam-dunk catastrophe.
Having worked on grizzly issues for 22 years, he said he’s noted the federal agency’s tendency to appease the states on grizzly bear matters.
“There were 741 bears in Yellowstone at last count and about a thousand (in the Glacier Park-Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex); with those numbers you can get away with some disruption,” he said. “With only 45-50 bears in the Cabinet-Yaak, there’s no wiggle room.”
The Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem on the Idaho-Montana border is one of six areas in the continental United States the federal agency has targeted for restoring grizzly populations.
Grizzlies in the Cabinets just reached stability in 2013, but only because federal biologists were boosting the population with releases of bears trapped elsewhere, he said.
“Big carnivores are not on everybody’s Christmas list,” he said. “A lot of politicians and state and federal officials are hostile to carnivores and very much pro-industrial use of public landscapes for political reasons. They’re not going to rah-rah for carnivores or they’ll be weeded out pretty quickly.”
But federal laws should govern federal lands and wildlife with Endangered Species Act protections, he said.
In April, FWS officials said the Montanore Mine wouldn’t jeopardize the Cabinets grizzly population. The opinion didn’t include mention of the Rock Creek Mine.
Peck and other NRDC representatives met with Forest Service and FWS officials in 2001 to go over protections for Cabinets’ grizzly bears in the face of mining proposals.
“All of them have moved on or retired,” he said. “Now the agency staffs say they don’t recall that they said they wouldn’t allow both mines to operate at once because the bears couldn’t take it.
“But I do remember what they said and I took notes to remind them. There are at least two official biological opinions pointing out that two mines would cut up the habitat and make the population unviable.”
To mitigate any losses of bears, the Montanore Mine would be required to acquire 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.
“They also seem to be saying the Rock Creek Mine wouldn’t hurt the grizzlies, but it’s not clear whether the agency is officially considering the cumulative impacts,” he said.
The cumulative impacts go beyond the potential adversities of the Montanore and Rock Creek mines. The Troy Mine is being reactivated and the Kootenai National Forest management plan is suggesting more areas be opened to backcountry motorized travel.
More people, more disruption, more motorized vehicles in wild areas and the potential for more poaching all spells bad news for grizzlies, Peck says.
Of the 30 grizzly mortalities documented in the region from 1982-2005, the Fish and Wildlife Service attributes 11 to poaching or suspicious activity.
Upcoming Forest Service decisions on the Rock Creek and Montanore mines and the Kootenai Forest plan could be “like a one-two-three punch on a small population of bears,” he said.
The Cabinets shouldn’t be viewed merely as an island to host a small population of grizzlies, Peck said.
“A lot of independent scientists say the Cabinet-Yaak is the most likely way grizzlies will expand from northern areas to the Selway-Bitterroot,” he said. “If you lose that little population, you lose that linkage that’s essential for biological grizzly recovery.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.