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The Mountain-Prairie Region

NEWS RELEASE

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
134 Union Boulevard
Lakewood, Colorado 80228

 

03-43 May 13, 2003

Contact:
Mark Wilson (406)449-5225, x205
Anne Vandehey (406)449-5225, x212
Sharon Rose (303)236-7917, x415

 

NON-JEOPARDY BIOLOGICAL OPINION ISSUED
BY U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE FOR PROPOSED ROCK CREEK MINE

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a non-jeopardy biological opinion on Sterling Corporation’s proposed Rock Creek Mine in the Cabinet Mountains of Montana. The non-jeopardy opinion concludes that the proposed silver and copper mine would not jeopardize the continued existence of grizzly bears or bull trout in this area. In addition, lynx are not likely to be adversely affected by the proposed mine.

"This was a very difficult decision to make. However, the situation changed drastically when the scenario changed from two mines in the area to one," said Regional Director Ralph Morgenweck. "We are very aware of the significance of any impacts on such a small population of grizzly bears; however, we believe the proposed activities and significant mitigation plan from Rock Creek Mine will not substantively degrade the baseline habitat conditions for bears, and will provide some beneficial effects for bears throughout the Cabinet Yaak ecosystem. Over 2,400 acres of now privately owned grizzly bear habitat in the Cabinet Mountains will be purchased or acquired through conservation easements by the mining company and turned over to the Forest Service to manage for grizzly bears. Better sanitation provisions will be put in place and two specialists will be hired to help monitor and prevent additional impacts on the bear. The mining company will also provide funding for grizzly monitoring and research in the southern Cabinets."

The proposed Rock Creek Mine site would be a 10,000-ton-per-day underground copper and silver mine. The mine would be located in northwestern Montana in Sanders County and would include 1,560 acres, 483 of which would be directly involved in mining operations. The additional 1,078 acres would remain undeveloped by mining activity. Fifty-two percent of the land in question is on U.S. Forest Service land. The mining operation would extend for at least a 35- year period, including construction, at least 27 years of production, followed by reclamation.

Although currently listed as threatened, the Service has stated since 1999 that the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem grizzly bear population warrants a listing status of endangered due to its small size (approximately 30-40 bears). The 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 1 bear over the 35-year life of the mine. Taking this and the unknown mortality concerns into consideration, the Service believes strongly that current and future actions to prevent future impacts of the mine agreed upon by Sterling Mining Corporation and the Kootenai National Forest will not jeopardize the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear population and provides some benefits for the grizzly in the Cabinet Mountains.

Bull trout, one of the three listed species in the area of the proposed Rock Creek Mine, is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The mining activity at the proposed mine would likely impact the Rock Creek fish of the Cabinet River Gorge bull trout subpopulation, a segment of the Columbia River Basin bull trout population. The Rock Creek bull trout contribute very little to the sustained viability of the bull trout on a larger scale. Due to the limited impacts that the Rock Creek population has on the larger population scale, the Service determined that harm to this population will have little impact on the long term recovery of the bull trout in the Columbia River Basin.

The Canada lynx is also listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The lynx needs large habitat ranges interconnected for denning, foraging, and population dispersal. Lynx are known to occur in the Kootenai National Forest, but no recent sightings have been reported in the Rock Creek drainage where the Rock Creek Mine would be built. Records indicate that only three lynx have been trapped in the area since 1977. Factors affecting lynx recovery include motorized and dispersed recreation. Since the mine would present no increased levels of recreation or motorized traffic in lynx habitat, its potential impacts are considered negligible. The proposed mine site would only affect 20 acres of lynx habitat, including three acres of denning habitat. These factors illustrate that the possible impacts on the lynx population of the Kootenai National Forest will be minimal. Therefore, the Service has issued a non-jeopardy opinion with regard to the Canada lynx for the proposed Rock Creek site.

The Service originally issued a biological opinion on the Rock Creek Mine in December 2000. Included in this biological opinion were plans for two mines. In addition to the Rock Creek Mine was the Montanore Mine by Noranda, Inc. At that time the Service issued a jeopardy opinion for grizzly bears and a non-jeopardy for bull trout. When the jeopardy opinion for grizzlies was announced, the Service also provided reasonable and prudent alternatives that would, if adopted, mitigate possible adverse effects from the mine and not jeopardize the continued existence of grizzly bears in the area, resulting in a non-jeopardy by the Service.

In March 2002, after litigation was filed against the Service relating to its determinations for both grizzlies and bull trout, the Service asked the court to allow it to revisit the conclusions in the Biological Opinion to make sure that it was based on the best available science. The plaintiffs had surfaced some issues that the Service believed deserved a second look to determine that the best decision was made. The Kootenai National Forest, where much of the mine would be located, subsequently withdrew its Record of Decision.

Shortly after the Service began its review of the biological opinion, Noranda, Inc., abandoned its permit for the Montanore Mining Project in the Cabinet Mountains. This action substantively improved baseline environmental conditions for grizzly bears in the southern Cabinets. In addition, the Kootenai National Forest and the Sterling Corporation proceeded to adopt all the reasonable and prudent alternatives suggested to help the grizzly in the Service’s biological opinion. With these alternatives now in place, prior to the mine’s establishment, this provides several positive actions for grizzlies in the Cabinet Mountains.

The Biological Opinion can be viewed at http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/endspp/rockcreek

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 540 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

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