Conservationists say proposed habitat for cuckoo bird could affect mine near Tucson

MarketsAssociated Press

Conservationists say a new proposal for protected habitat for the yellow-billed cuckoo in southern Arizona could impede plans for a mine in that area.

Already, the proposed Rosemont copper mine south of Tucson has faced seven years of delays. The mine was dealt another setback in May, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was restarting a review examining the project's effects on endangered species after an ocelot was discovered in the area.

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On Thursday, the agency announced it was proposing to make more than 5,000 acres in the upper Cienega Creek a critical habitat to protect the yellow-billed cuckoo, which in October 2013 was recommended as an endangered species.

"It's just another indication that you could not pick a worse place to put a massive open pit," said Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, which opposes the mine. "That's really the issue for Cienega Creek, for this bird and other species."

The proposed mine would put an open pit in the Santa Rita Mountains and would be located on more than 4,400 acres of federal, state and private land. Serraglio says the mine would need to pump groundwater that helps keep the creek running, eventually drying it out.

"Our intention for Rosemont is to build the right mine, the right way," said Patrick Merrin, vice president of the Arizona business unit of Hudbay Minerals, Rosemont's parent company.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife's processes for establishing critical habitat include both expert and public comment as the federal agency makes its determination; these can be considered the same sorts of regulatory evaluations that guide Hudbay's Rosemont project," he said.

Steve Spangle, who manages the Fish and Wildlife's ecological services field office in Arizona, says the agency is taking into consideration any species that could be affected by the mine.

There are more yellow-billed cuckoos in Arizona than in any other western state, he said, and many of them live around the Cienega Creek.

"We'll have to look at if the project is going to affect the critical habitat," Spangle said. "We'll have to do that analysis."

But it will be about a year before the area could be designated a critical habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service must seek public input before a final decision is made.