May 31 (Reuters) - A federal judge in Montana has blocked the development of a contested mine next to a wilderness area in the northwestern part of the state, handing a victory to environmental activists who had argued the project could endanger grizzly bears and bull trout.
Citing the Endangered Species Act and other federal environmental laws in a pair of rulings late on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Donald Malloy effectively canceled the U.S. Forest Service permit issued for the proposed copper and silver mine last year.
Environmental groups praised the decision.
"Yesterday's ruling underscores how wrong it is to site major industrial facilities on the doorstep of public wilderness lands that provide irreplaceable habitat for imperiled wildlife,” Katherine O'Brien, an attorney for several of the environmental groups involved in the case, said in an emailed statement following the ruling.
The Montanore mine had been planned by a subsidiary of Hecla Mining Co on the edge of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, part of the Rocky Mountains about 120 miles (190 km) north of Missoula.
The decision invalidates the current permit but does not prevent the company from reapplying for a new permit. Hecla is still deciding on its next steps and has not ruled out either appealing the judge's ruling or applying for a new permit, said Luke Russell, a Hecla spokesman, who called the decision disappointing.
Russell said company officials would seek a meeting with the federal agencies involved in the case in hopes of finding a way to move forward with the project.
Groups including Defenders of Wildlife and Earthjustice had sued to block the mine. They argued that its facilities would be located next to critical habitat for grizzly bears and bull trout, both endangered species, and that the mine would also drain millions of gallons from streams in the wilderness area.
The mine would have employed about 350 people during peak production, according to estimates cited in local news media, and required about 13 miles (21 km) of improved roads and 14 miles (23 km) of power lines, along with storage and treatment facilities for tailings and wastewater. (Reporting by Tom James in Seattle; Editing by Patrick Enright and Jonathan Oatis)