Augusta Resource Corporation’s proposed Rosemont copper mine lies squarely within the 764,000 acres of “critical habitat” recently designated for the endangered jaguar, which virtually guarantees legal action by wildlife advocates if construction of the massive open-pit mine appears imminent.
It is unknown whether a judge would issue an injunction to prevent construction of the mine, but if the litigation history surrounding the jaguar is a guide, any legal challenge would likely take years to resolve.
Last week, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) released its long-awaited critical habitat designation for the jaguar that protects the designated lands from land clearing or other modifications that would “adversely modify” the jaguar’s habitat.
“Critical habitat in the United States contributes to the jaguar’s persistence and recovery across the species’ entire range by providing areas to support individuals that disperse into the United States from the nearest core population in Mexico,” FWS stated in a press release.
All projects within critical habitat that lie on federal land, have federal funding or need a federal permit will need a formal review of their impacts on jaguar habitat, the Arizona Daily Star reported.
The proposed Rosemont mine would destroy more than 3,000 acres of Coronado National Forest in the Santa Rita Mountains 35 miles southeast of Tucson in an area where the nation’s only known jaguar has been repeatedly photographed in the last two years. The mine would also have ripple effects on water supplies, wildlife and other resources across thousands of additional acres in the surrounding region.
Construction of the open-pit mine, which is located primarily on private property but will use public lands to dump waste rock and mine tailings, requires approval from the Coronado National Forest through the issuance of a favorable Record of Decision and a final Mine Plan of Operations.
“(Critical habitat) designation will make it illegal for the Forest Service or the Fish and Wildlife Service to fund or authorize activities that would harm jaguar habitat,” warns the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity (Center) in a press release.
If the Forest Service ultimately approves the mine, a legal challenge will likely focus on the conflict that now exists between the FWS’s inclusion of the proposed Rosemont mine in the jaguar’s critical habitat and the agency’s issuance of a “biological opinion” (large file warning) on October 30, 2013 concluding that the mine won’t damage jaguar habitat.
The FWS biological opinion determined that since the mine area was less than 1 percent of the 838,000 acres of proposed critical habitat then under consideration, the Rosemont project would be too small to damage the ability of the jaguar to migrate between the U.S. and a larger population of jaguars further south in Mexico and therefore would not adversely impact its habitat.
The Daily Star reported that the Center plans to challenge the FWS biological opinion on the Rosemont project if the U.S. Forest Service approves the mine.
“We interpret this designation to mean that the Santa Ritas are protected from the mine,” Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center told the Daily Star. “The biological opinion is an opinion. This is the final rule.”
The Center’s litigation against the FWS over the jaguar has spanned nearly two decades and led to last week’s establishment of critical habitat.
It is expected any litigation filed by the Center will seek an injunction to prevent Rosemont from initiating construction of the mine because it would result in irreparable harm to jaguar habitat.
It has been almost 17 years since the FWS first protected the jaguar under the Endangered Species Act in response to a lawsuit brought by the Center, Environmental News Service reports.