By Matthew Brown, AP

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A U.S. judge on Wednesday struck down the government’s approval of the first phase of a long-stalled copper and silver mine that would be constructed beneath a northwestern Montana wilderness.

The decision against the Rock Creek Mine near Noxon is the latest in series of legal setbacks for a project first proposed in the late 1980s.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy sided with opponents who said an environmental review by federal officials was insufficient because it considered only exploration work and not full-scale mining.

Rock Creek is one of two mines proposed by Idaho-based Hecla Mining Company that would tunnel beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, an area rich with wildlife including trout, grizzly bears and wolverines.

Sporadic mining has occurred in the area since the early 1800s, according to the U.S. Forest Service. But there are worries the large-scale projects proposed by Hecla could drain groundwater supplies, damaging the habitat of federally-protected bull trout.

The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness is protected under federal law, but mining is allowed on existing mining claims.

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