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Xa'Lcin v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

October 10, 2019

KSANKA KUPAQA XA'LCIN, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE, et al., Defendants, and RC RESOURCES, INC., Defendant-Intervenor.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          DONALD W. MOLLOY, DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case challenges decisions by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the United States Forest Service (collectively "Federal Defendants") about the Rock Creek Mine, a proposed mine that would lie beneath and adjacent to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. Plaintiffs are tribal and environmental organizations whose members use the Cabinet Mountains for cultural, spiritual, subsistence, and recreational activities. They claim Federal Defendants violated the Endangered Species Act ("ESA") by failing to reinitiate formal consultation on the mine's impact to grizzly bears (Claim I), determining the mine will not jeopardize bull trout (Claim II), and using a habitat surrogate to establish the mine's authorized incidental take of bull trout (Claim III). Federal Defendants and Defendant-Intervenor RC Resources seek judgment on the pleadings for the Fish and Wildlife Service on Claim I and for all defendants on Claim III. (Docs. 32, 34.) They argue that the Fish and Wildlife Service has no obligation to reinitiate formal consultation under the ESA and therefore cannot be liable on Claim I and that Plaintiffs lack standing to assert Claim III. Alternatively, they argue that Claim III is unripe. For the following reasons, the motions are denied.

         Background

         The Rock Creek Mine is an underground copper and silver mine proposed near the town of Noxon in Sanders County, Montana. (Doc. 33-2 at 10.) The ore deposit lies beneath and adjacent to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness; however, the mine's surface facilities and access points, except for a possible air intake, will be located outside of the wilderness boundary. (Id.) The mine's implementation is planned in two phases. (Id.) Phase I, which is expected to last two years, calls for the construction of an evaluation adit to obtain ore samples for metallurgical testing and collect hydrologic and geochemical data. (Id. at 11; Doc. 33-1 at 14-15.) Phase II comprises the development and operation of the mine. (Doc. 33-2 at 11.) Once in operation, the mine is expected to produce 10, 000 tons of ore per day for 26 to 30 years. (Id.) A two-year period for shutdown and reclamation will follow. (Id. at 12.) In all, the project will last 33.5 to 38 years and will disturb 445 acres, including 136 acres on the Kootenai National Forest. (Id. at 11.)

         Forest Service authorization of the mine is required because it will be located, in part, on National Forest land. (Doc. 33-1 at 8.) Further, because the mine may affect bull trout and grizzly bear populations protected under the ESA, the Forest Service must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service before approving the mine. (Id. at 67); 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a)(2). The result of the consultation is the Fish and Wildlife Service's issuance of a "biological opinion" as to whether the mine is likely to jeopardize a protected species or adversely modify its critical habitat. 16 U.S.C. § 1536(b)(3); 50 C.F.R. § 402.14(g)(4). If the Service issues a "no jeopardy" opinion but determines the mine may incidentally "take" individual members of a protected species, it must specify the permitted level of take in an "incidental take statement." 16 U.S.C. § 1536(b)(4); 50 C.F.R. § 402.14(i)(1); see also 16 U.S.C. § 1532(19) (defining "take").

         This is the fourth round of litigation on the Rock Creek Mine. (See Doc. 33-1 at 67 (summarizing litigation history).) Most recently, in 2010, the Forest Service's authorization was invalidated under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Forest Service Organic Administration Act. Rock Creek All. v. U.S. Forest Serv., 703 F.Supp.2d 1152, 1170, 1181 (D. Mont. 2010).

         In 2017, the Forest Service reinitiated consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the mine's effects on bull trout, which resulted in a biological opinion ("2017 Bull Trout Biological Opinion") that the mine was not likely to jeopardize bull trout and an accompanying Incidental Take Statement. (Doc. 33-1 at 68; see Doc. 33-2.) At the same time, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a supplement to its 2006 biological opinion on grizzly bears ("2017 Grizzly Bear Supplement"), concluding that reinitiating consultation on grizzly bears was not required. (Doc. 36-1 at 3; see Doc. 33-2.) In August 2018, the Forest Service issued a record of decision approving Phase I of the mine ("2018 Record of Decision"). (See Doc. 33-1.)

         Plaintiffs filed this suit on January 25, 2019, seeking a declaration that the 2017 Bull Trout Biological Opinion, 2017 Grizzly Bear Supplement, and 2018 Record of Decision are invalid under the ES A. (Doc. 1.) RC Resources, which owns the mineral estate for the Rock Creek ore deposit, holds the mine's principal permits, and will be the mine operator, intervened as a matter of right on March 14, 2019. (Doc. 11.) Federal Defendants and RC Resources filed the present motions for judgment on the pleadings on July 19, 2019. (Docs. 32, 34.)

         Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) provides that "[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings." "Dismissal under Rule 12(c) is warranted when, taking the allegations in the complaint as true, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Daewoo Elec. Am. Inc. v. Opta Corp., 875 F.3d 1241, 1246 (9th Cir. 2017). In ruling on 12(c) motions, courts are limited to the material included in the pleadings. Yakima Valley Mem 7 Hosp. v. Wash. St. Dep't of Health, 654 F.3d 919, 925 n.6 (9th Cir. 2011); Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d). However, courts may consider "documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, and matters of which a court may take judicial notice" without converting the motion into one for summary judgment. Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007). A document "may be incorporated by reference into a complaint if the plaintiff refers extensively to the document or the document forms the basis of the plaintiffs claim." United States v. Ritchie, 342 F.3d 903, 908 (9th Cir. 2003).

         Analysis

         I. Failure to Reinitiate Formal Consultation (Claim I)

         Federal Defendants seek judgment on the pleadings for the Fish and Wildlife Service on Claim I. Claim I alleges the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service violated the ESA by failing to reinitiate formal consultation about the Rock Creek Mine's effects on grizzly bears notwithstanding new data about human-caused grizzly bear mortalities in the mine's vicinity. ESA violations are reviewed under the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), which governs judicial review of agency action. 5 U.S.C. § 706; Ariz. Cattle Growers' Ass 'n v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Serv., 273 F.3d 1229, 1235 (9th Cir. 2001). The APA authorizes two types of challenges to agency decisions. First, under § 706(1), a reviewing court can "compel agency action unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed." Second, under § 706(2), a reviewing court can "hold unlawful and set aside agency action" that is found to be, among other things, "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law."

         Federal Defendants construe Claim I as a "failure to act" claim under § 706(1). But while the Complaint does not specify which provision of the APA governs Claim I, it uses language from § 706(2). Specifically, it alleges that the 2017 Grizzly Bear Supplement is "arbitrary, capricious, and violates the ESA and its implementing regulations," (Doc. 1 at ¶ 98), and asks the Court to "set aside" the 2017 Grizzly Bear Supplement, (id. at ¶ 108). Claim I is thus a § 706(2) claim that the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision not to reinitiate consultation, as formalized in the 2017 Grizzly Bear Supplement, is arbitrary and capricious. Federal Defendants concede that a § 706(2) claim challenging the 2017 Grizzly Bear Supplement is ...


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