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Threatened bird puts brakes on Coronado National Forest mine

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WASHINGTON – Federal officials have pulled back approval for exploratory mine drilling in the Coronado National Forest after receiving what one official described as new information on a threatened bird in the area.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service extended threatened status to the yellow-billed cuckoo in October – more than a month after the U.S. Forest Service had given Regal Resources the go-ahead to drill for evidence of copper in the Patagonia area of the forest.

The Fish and Wildlife Service in December withdrew its concurrence in the project. That led the Forest Service to pull its approval last week, according to a Jan. 9 letter from the district ranger for the forest service.

No activity can take place on the so-called Sunnyside project “until after consultation is concluded” and a new decision is issued, Sierra Vista District Ranger Mark Ruggiero said in the letter.

Forest Service officials did not respond to requests for comment, and a spokesman for Regal said Thursday that the mining company would not comment on the issue.

An opponent of the mine this week welcomed the regulators’ reversal, but she was skeptical that it would mean the end of the Sunnyside project in the long run.

“I think they’re going to go ahead and make the same bad decision they made in the first place,” Wendy Russell, coordinator of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, said of federal regulators. “They’re going to take out the bad parts and still move it forward.”

The alliance and another group, Defenders of Wildlife, sued the federal agencies in late October, charging that the approval of the exploratory permits violated environmental regulations.

The suit came several weeks after Fish and Wildlife had granted threatened species status to the Western population of the yellow-billed cuckoo, which is found in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.

The project area is also home to several other endangered species, including the Mexican spotted owl, jaguars, ocelots and the lesser long-nosed bat.

The Sunnyside project called for drilling six bore holes in a 5,100-square-foot area in a search for copper, according to the original September decision granting approval. Regal Resources said on its website that the overall project area covers about 5,900 acres of national forest land in Santa Cruz County about 15 miles northeast of Nogales.

But critics note that the site is upstream from an area that has been proposed as critical habitat for the yellow-billed cuckoo. Allowing mining operations to go forward could put contaminants in the watershed and threaten the bird, Russell said.

In their suit, the alliance and the Defenders of Wildlife also said the project could threaten local drinking water as well as the other endangered species in the area.