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USF&W: Rock Creek Mine won't endanger bears

| October 18, 2006 12:00 AM

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a non-jeopardy biological opinion for the proposed Rock Creek Mine near Noxon that concludes that the project will be protective of threatened bull trout and should produce a positive net effect for the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem grizzly bear population.

The agency's decision means the mine "has moved a giant step closer to reality," said Revett Minerals Inc. president and chief executive officer Bill Orchow.

"This is good news for the economy, good news for northwest Montana, and good news for wildlife," Orchow said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service believes that the conservation measures by the Kootenai National Forest and Revett will improve habitat security and reduce human-caused mortality of grizzly bears as well as provide long-term monitoring data for both bears and bull trout, said Mitch King, director of the agency's Mountain-Prairie Region.

The Fish and Wildlife Service believes that most of the potential negative effects to both bears and trout would occur mainly during the construction phase of the mine. Several measures were added to the mitigation plan since 2003 to reduce or avoid adverse effects to grizzly bears. Revett would provide funding for three grizzly bear specialists and one law enforcement officer; bear-resistant food and garbage storage at the mine site, at the homes of mine employees and at county garbage transfer stations; the acquisition of 2,450 acres of privately-owned grizzly bear habitat in the Cabinet Yaak ecosystem; public information and education programs; and linkage habitat research in the Cabinet Yaak ecosystem.

Construction of the mine would begin only after the Cabinet Mountain grizzly bear population has been supplemented by at least six new female bears, two of which have already been trapped and transplanted into the region.

The company will also fund a continuous monitoring program for grizzly bears in the Cabinet Mountains to gauge the effectiveness of the conservation measures, to track movements of grizzly bears moved into the Cabinet Mountains and to monitor habitat use by the bears.

Construction of the mine is expected to increase levels of sediment getting into Rock Creek during the five-year construction period and for two years afterward. To protect bull trout, Revett will be required to provide long-term monitoring designed to detect changes in water chemistry and changes in stream temperature and stream flows.

The proposed 10,000-ton-per-day underground copper and silver mine would include 1,560 acres, 483 of which would be directly involved in mining operations. The mining operation would extend for at least a 35-year period, including construction, at least 27 years of production, followed by reclamation.

The grizzly bear population in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem consists of approximately 30-40 bears. The Fish and Wildlife Service is on record as stating that the mortality goal for this population is zero, meaning that recovery and management efforts strive to reduce the potential for grizzly bear mortalities. The Rock Creek Mine has an anticipated level of direct take of one bear over the 35-year life of the mine, but the Fish and Wildlife Service believes that the conservation measures for grizzly bears will prevent the loss of more bears during this time.

A 2003 biological opinion concluded that the proposed mine would not jeopardize the grizzly bear and bull trout but was sent back to the Fish and Wildlife Service for revision in March 2005 following a lawsuit by a coalition of environmental groups.

"The biologists and others who have spent years developing this biological opinion have determined that the grizzly bear population needs help if it is going to survive, and the Rock Creek Project will provide for a substantial portion of that help," Orchow said.

Any group that appeals the biological opinion will be putting the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population at further risk, he added.

But Cesar Hernandez of the Cabinet Resource Group, one of the groups that challenged the previous biological opinion, said it's "illogical thinking" that the mine is needed to help recover the bear. Attorneys for the environmental groups "will be fine-tooth-combing the thing," he said.

"I know it will end up back in court," he said.