Judge Blocks Mining in Arizona ‘Sky Island’

     TUCSON (CN) – Threats to yellow-billed cuckoos, jaguars and Mexican spotted owls warrant a closer look before mineral exploration in the Patagonia Mountains south of Tucson can proceed, a federal judge ruled.
     A historic mining and ranching region, the Patagonia Mountains and the small town of the same name are about 60 miles southeast of Tucson. Lushly wooded by Arizona standards, thanks to Sonoita Creek, hummingbirds and other protected species, including jaguars, haunt the area. The town of about 900 is 20 miles north of the border and 7 miles from the proposed mining.
     U.S. District Judge Rosemary Marquez ruled Tuesday that the U.S. Forest Service was wrong to give Canadian company Regal Resources a pass on completing a detailed environmental analysis of the project. The company was set to begin drilling in October.
     The Forest Service approved the Sunnyside Project in 2014 without an environmental assessment because mineral exploration projects lasting less than a year qualify for a “categorical exclusion” from some federal environmental regulations. The agency also found that the project would not likely harm the area’s wildlife.
     The federal listing of the yellow-billed cuckoo as threatened in late 2014 prompted officials to take another look. The Forest Service approved the project again in April after consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
     Defenders of Wildlife and the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance challenged the decisions in Federal Court, saying that invasive drilling, loud noises and 24-hour lighting in the wilderness would harm threatened and endangered species in the biologically diverse “sky islands” that provide habitat for subtropical species, such as the jaguar and ocelot.
     The groups also claimed the project could damage the Sonoita Creek watershed, where many residents of Patagonia have wells.
     Noting that the recent listing of the yellow-billed cuckoo would require Regal Resources to shut down during the bird’s mating season from March 1 to Sept. 30, Judge Marquez found that the project could not be completed in a year.
     “Because the record does not support the conclusion that the Sunnyside Project can be completed within one year, USFS’s approval of the project using the categorical exclusion for short-term mineral exploration projects … was arbitrary and capricious,” the ruling states.
     Marquez also found that the agency failed to conduct “an appropriate cumulative impact analysis,” and to explain “why anticipated effects on the Mexican spotted owl are certain to be environmentally insignificant.”
     Defenders of Wildlife spokeswoman Courtney Sexton said on the group’s website: “It seems pretty obvious that loud mineral drilling operations and construction occurring 24 hours a day, seven days a week (using artificial lighting at night) for at least five months, with total project operations and reclamation lasting up to three years, would have a significant impact on anyone or anything living nearby.”
     Coronado National Forest officials did not return a request for comment Thursday, nor did Regal Resources.
     Marquez granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs, denied it to the government, and closed the case.

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