September 22, 2008

Decker-Area Coal Mine Seeks Expansion into Grouse Area

By French, Brett

A proposal to expand the Spring Creek Coal Co.'s mine in south- central Montana by almost 500 acres would cut into a section of important sage grouse habitat.

"There are no active leks in close proximity to that area," said Dale Tribby, a Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist from Miles City. Leks are courtship grounds vital to the birds' reproduction.

"But part of the area has been identified as important sage grouse habitat by BLM," even though only signs of birds, but no birds, have been seen during surveys.

The BLM is holding a meeting on the application by Spring Creek Coal to modify its federal lease. The first meeting was Tuesday night in Miles City. The next will be tonight in Sheridan, Wyo., at the Fulmer Public Library at 6:30 p.m. On Thursday, a meeting will be held at Montana State University Billings in the student union's Beartooth Room beginning at 7 p.m.

The Spring Creek mine is located about 35 miles north of Sheridan, Wyo., near the town of Decker. Rio Tinto Energy America bought the mine in 1993 and has recently been seeking a buyer for its coal operations in the United States.

Located in the northwest section of the Powder River Basin, the mine draws coal from four pits across 6,900 acres to produce about 15 million tons of coal a year. The mine taps the Anderson-Dietz coal seam, which has an average thickness of about 80 feet and ranges from 50 to 220 feet below the surface, according to the company's Web site. It is one of five open-pit coal mines in Montana.

Spring Creek's coal is sold to electricity generating and heating utilities, industry, schools and hospitals in surrounding states and Montana, the company's Web site says. As of 2006, the mine employed 185 people.

The mine's last expansion to the north was permitted in 2007, according to Dan Benoit of the BLM. The new application would expand the mine to the south.

At the end of 2006, the mine had about 3,100 acres disturbed and 600 acres reclaimed.

"Their reclamation activities have been some of the best I have seen in terms of big sagebrush," BLM's Tribby said.

Sagebrush is an important food and shelter source for sage grouse, which are under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The birds are managed as a game species in Montana and Wyoming and so are still hunted.

Tribby said the area proposed for the mine's expansion includes a deep ponderosa pine gully along with some grasslands that aren't used by sage grouse. He said the mine has offered to add sagebrush to other areas already reclaimed to create more sage grouse habitat. Tribby said he didn't know if the potential loss of the habitat would mean a loss of birds. That's a question that would have to be answered through an environmental assessment.

"They're more dependent on having a sufficient amount of canopy cover," Tribby said. "Some of the old, decadent sagebrush loses its canopy cover. The older, taller stands with a good canopy of sagebrush are crucial for them in winter and during nesting. We do have some of that on the benches."

Forms will be available to comment on the mine expansion at the meetings. Comments will be taken until Sept. 2.

For more information, contact Benoit at 406-233-2800.

Copyright Billings Gazette Aug 20, 2008

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