FWS identifies the project’s threat to imperiled species, approves it anyway
Nothing says western wilderness quite like intact landscapes with grizzly bears and healthy streams with native bull trout. But a proposed mining project in northwest Montana threatens the habitat and survival of these species protected under the Endangered Species Act. In June, Defenders joined a coalition of conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, and filed suit to challenge the proposed Montanore Mine, which would drill and extract up to 20,000 tons of copper and silver ore every day for up to 20 years. Beyond the footprint of the mine, the project would also require construction of pipelines, waste facilities, and 14 miles of high voltage transmission lines. It would also mean paving and widening 13 miles of roads, chopping down trees and vegetation along the way. In total, the mine would disturb 1,500 acres of pristine landscape adjacent to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in the Kootenai National Forest. In fact, once constructed, the mine would bore under the wilderness area. This wild landscape’s forests and streams provide rare undeveloped habitat for threatened bull trout and grizzly bears, and a host of other species from mountain goats to mountain lions.
Good Cop FWS: “Montanore Mine is bad news…”
Because the mine requires U.S. Forest Service permission and has the potential to impact protected species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) must analyze the effects the project could have on the animals and their habitat. On March 31, 2014, FWS published its findings. The agency determined that the mine would permanently reduce streamflows in bull trout critical habitat, as well as cause sediment pollution and dump wastewater from the mine into the streams, even though that water will be too hot for bull trout to handle. These impacts may also cut off the trout’s access to essential upstream spawning areas. In other words, this mine would wreak permanent havoc on bull trout populations that are already teetering on the brink and critical habitat that is already degraded. Bull trout need very cold and clear water to survive. This narrow necessity makes bull trout vulnerable to local extinctions, which have already occurred in an estimated 55% of their historic range in the Columbia River Basin, where the proposed Montanore Mine site is located.
Grizzly bears don’t fare any better with the proposed mine. Like bull trout, grizzly bears in the region are already vulnerable to local extinctions, and the project could push this over the edge. FWS determined the proposed mine could displace three of the four adult female grizzly bears in the Cabinet Mountains, which would deal a significant blow to the small population of approximately 21 bears. The situation for grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, which includes the Cabinet Mountains and is one of six areas designated as essential to grizzly bear recovery in the lower 48 states, is already dire. FWS has found that humans kill about one bear in the area each year – an unsustainable rate of loss for a species that takes so long to reproduce. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks already have to add to this population with grizzly bears from the Northern Continental Divide population in Montana to help keep the numbers up. Grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem are slowly starting to see increasing numbers but the Montanore Mine could reverse that trend by ushering in a proposed 800 additional people to the bears’ habitat, making it even more likely to see more grizzly bears killed.
Bad Cop FWS: “…but it doesn’t matter.”
Somehow, despite the significant and permanent damage the proposed Montanore Mine would have on bull trout, grizzly bears, and bull trout critical habitat, FWS approved the project. In its findings, the agency laid out strikes against the mine and the danger of local extinctions for bull trout and grizzly bears. Then FWS pulled a complete about-face and concluded that the project wouldn’t jeopardize the species or critical habitat. It claimed that the effects of the mine, though severe, would only impact a select few bull trout populations, making the pollution and reduced streamflows too localized to matter to the species as a whole. Even more surprising, FWS concluded that the project could benefit grizzly bears, somehow making them better off than before. Since Montanore Mine would usher in hundreds of people to a remote landscape, the company behind the operation promised to fund efforts to educate the public about bears and minimize the conflicts between humans and grizzlies. Often these conflicts result in bears being killed or relocated. It is true that grizzly bear conflicts can often be avoided with a combination of specific tools and public outreach. In fact, Defenders has spent years doing just that in this region. But when weighed in the balance, these strategies will not be able to offset the significant impact and added risk of a massive new mine. Even without the mine, an average of one grizzly bear dies each year due to interactions with humans.
In June, Defenders joined forces with other conservation groups and filed suit against FWS’ approval of the mine. In its conclusion, FWS states the mine could extinguish the bull trout population and displace female grizzly bears, but in the same breath, gives the project approval to move forward. There is simply no evidence to support the agency’s decision. In fact, its own findings contradict the decision entirely! To protect threatened bull trout and grizzly bears, we’re taking FWS to court to fulfill its duty. These imperiled species deserve to have their habitat stay pure and wild, not polluted and invaded.