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A new biological opinion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service states a proposed copper-silver mine in the Cabinet Mountains won't hurt grizzly bear or bull trout there.

The opinion, released Tuesday afternoon during a conference call from USFWS offices in Missoula and Denver, said Sterling Mining Co.'s Rock Creek Mine plan could be built in ways that might even improve habitat for those threatened or endangered species.

Sterling President Frank Duval said during the conference call he was comfortable with what the federal scientists had come up with in the new opinion. The company has pursued the project for about four years. It has spent about $7 million developing it, Duval said in a previous interview.

FWS official Mark Wilson said the abandonment of another mining project in the same area had a big impact on the new opinion. The original FWP opinion in December 2000 considered the effects of two mines: Rock Creek and the Montanore project proposed by Noranda Inc. That opinion decided the double project would put grizzly bears in jeopardy, although it might not affect bull trout. The opinion was pulled in March 2002 after court appeals.

Noranda abandoned its plans last August.

Sterling would be required to post a bond worth $13 million to $14 million to cover costs of grizzly bear mitigation if it goes forward with the mine, Wilson said. Actions would include hiring law enforcement and education specialists to promote good human/bear coexistence, closing several roads in the Cabinet Mountains and having Sterling buy or place conservation easements on more than 2,400 acres of grizzly habitat that would be turned over to the Forest Service.

That's in addition to the anticipated $70 million bond Sterling would leave with the state of Montana for mine reclamation.

Duval said it would take two or three years to study the opinion and develop a feasibility study to decide if the mine is viable.

"A lot of this depends on metal prices," Duval said. "It will require higher prices than we have today."

Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Bob Castaneda said he expected "a high likelihood" the new opinion would face administrative appeals and court lawsuits.

The full opinion is expected to be posted on the Internet late Tuesday afternoon. Check for more information about the Rock Creek Mine biological opinion.

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