By Rob Chaney, Missoulian

Cabinet Mountains

Breaking a permitting process into small steps backfired for Hecla Mining Company last week, when a federal judge ruled the government couldn’t grant permits for the exploration phase of a copper mine on the edge of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

U.S. District Judge Don Molloy wrote that what might happen to grizzly bears, bull trout and other environmental resources when the full project got underway must be considered.

On Wednesday, Molloy vacated decisions by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowing Hecla to move ahead on the Rock Creek Mine between Noxon and Libby. At the start of his ruling on Ksanka Kupaqa Xa???in vs. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he observed the project had been in court for two decades.

Hecla has two mining projects on the edge of the Cabinets, both facing legal challenges. The miners propose digging under the boundary of the federal wilderness area to reach big veins of copper and silver. While gathering minerals underneath a wilderness area does not violate the Wilderness Act, miners must show their activity won’t disturb surface resources such as wildlife and water.

In the case of Idaho-based Hecla, both its Rock Creek and nearby Montanore projects appear at risk. The company lost several previous bids in court because it and FWS couldn’t show all the road-building and human activity wouldn’t risk killing too many of the estimated 50 grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak Recovery Area. The mines’ potential to dewater Cabinet lakes and streams also put at risk threatened bull trout, as well as the whole ecosystem dependent on that water.

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