A controversial silver and copper mine that would have tunneled under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area may have just been shafted.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled on March 28 that construction of the Rock Creek Mine on the edge of the northwestern Montana wilderness area would further jeopardize threatened populations of grizzly bear and bull trout. The ruling throws out a 2003 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion that had given a green light to Revett Minerals’ mine proposal.

The Cabinet Mountains’ grizzly population has already dwindled to about 15, and "contemplating the loss of additional bears related to the mine is not rational," the judge wrote. His ruling also disagrees with the agency’s conclusion that the loss of Rock Creek’s bull trout would not significantly impact the survival of the species.

Unless the Justice Department appeals Molloy’s decision, the Service will probably rewrite its biological opinion to include more protection for wildlife — a familiar exercise, since its 2003 opinion was also revised (HCN, 2/18/02: Battle brews over a wilderness mother lode).

William Orchow, president of Revett Minerals, remains optimistic: "We believe that this project is going to go forward."

Environmental groups, also concerned about downstream water pollution, aren’t taking any chances, however. They’ve filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s issuance of water discharge permits for the mine. Meanwhile, the nearby Troy Mine, which Revett Minerals recently took over and reopened, is under investigation. Environmentalists charge that barrels of toxic chemicals were illegally buried in the tailings ponds while Asarco was operating the mine between 1981 and 1993.