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Originally published March 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 5, 2008 at 12:48 AM

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Mining proposal called wildlife threat

An alliance of 10 groups filed lawsuits accusing federal agencies of violating the Endangered Species Act by approving the mine.

The Spokesman-Review

SPOKANE — Environmental groups have fired off a new round of court challenges to the proposed Rock Creek Mine, arguing that extracting silver and copper from beneath the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness Area would result in the deaths of protected grizzly bears and bull trout.

The lawsuits accuse federal agencies of violating the Endangered Species Act by approving the mine.

"Grizzly and bull-trout populations are suffering. It's going to be hard for them to survive the industrialization of their habitat," said Jim Costello, Montana field organizer for the Rock Creek Alliance.

The alliance is one of 10 groups involved in two separate lawsuits against the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The paperwork was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Missoula.

Fifteen or fewer grizzlies are still believed to roam the Cabinet Mountains, a rugged range on the Idaho-Montana border.

How the mine would affect grizzly bears, threatened bull trout and water quality in the Clark Fork River has been the subject of numerous lawsuits since the mine was first proposed in the 1980s. The Clark Fork River flows into Idaho's Lake Pend Oreille shortly after crossing the state line.

Tim Preso, a staff attorney for Earthjustice, said the groups are trying to halt Rock Creek Mine's initial development work, which could begin this spring.

Carson Rife, of Revett Minerals, the mine's Spokane Valley owner, says the work deserves to move forward.

"We feel that all of the issues that are continually brought up have been adequately addressed through 20 years of study," said Rife, Revett's vice president of operations.

Revett hopes to begin a two-year, pre-feasibility study for the Rock Creek Mine this spring, unearthing new details about the silver-copper deposit and the cost of mine construction. Building the mine would take another two years.

Human activity associated with the Rock Creek Mine will result in the direct death of one adult female grizzly over the mine's lifetime, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service predicted in earlier studies. Other bears are likely to leave their habitat in the Rock Creek drainage during the mine's construction. However, $34 million in grizzly protection efforts financed by Revett will offset the losses, according to agency officials.

The company agreed to buy 2,450 acres of grizzly habitat as part of the mitigation and has already purchased 927 acres.

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Revett has begun paying the salary of a "wildlife conflict specialist" through the state of Montana to reduce human-bear interactions. The company will also fund other grizzly-related wildlife officers and bull-trout monitoring.

The efforts aren't enough, according to environmental groups.

Grizzlies in the Cabinets are at risk from small numbers of reproducing bears and high rates of human-caused mortality, the lawsuit noted. Even the loss of two or three adult females would be a significant setback to grizzly recovery efforts, the suit said.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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