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State board: Banning new mines near Grand Canyon would protect wildlife

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PHOENIX – The Arizona Game and Fish Commission on Wednesday endorsed a U.S. Department of the Interior proposal to withdraw more than 1 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon from mining for the next 20 years.

Pointing to concerns about potential habitat loss if companies acted on the more than 3,000 uranium mining claims in the area, commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of the proposal.

“We are not taking mining on as an issue; we are taking on increased mining and the impact it has on wildlife in those areas,” said John Harris, a member of the commission.

The endorsement comes as the Interior Department seeks public comment on a draft environmental impact statement offering four alternatives for dealing with new mining claims near Grand Canyon. The department’s preferred alternative, and the one endorsed by the Game and Fish Commission, involves three large tracts south and north of the canyon.

Companies filed thousands of claims for mines near the canyon as uranium prices rose in recent years. In 2009, the Interior Department issued a two-year moratorium on new mining claims and exploration on 1 million acres.

Josh Avey, habitat branch chief for Game and Fish, told commissioners there was a possibility that populations of mule deer, pronghorn antelope, elk and desert bighorn sheep would lose habitat and become fragmented as mining companies built new roads ramped up operations.

Harris, who voted to endorse the Interior Department’s plan, said he was concerned about potential harm to seeps and springs vital to wildlife as well as the impact of new roads.

“I think those roads would be hauling hot and heavy,” he said.

Commission member Jack Husted voted against the endorsement, saying that blocking mining on public land could set a precedent leading to bans on hunting and other activities.

“It is a slippery slope when we block one activity out,” he said.

But commission member Norman Freeman said the department’s endorsement wasn’t taking an anti-mining stance but addressing impacts to wildlife. He noted that mines with pre-existing claims are allowed to continue.

“It is not in opposition to mining,” he said. “It is kind of like, let’s take a breath.”