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“The Crown is a “melting pot” of convergence for plants and animals from the prairies, the maritime of the west coast, the southern Rockies and the Canadian Rockies.”

ABOVE A bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout spawning and rearing tributary stream flowing out of the Continental Divide toward the Transboundary North Fork Flathead River in British Columbia. (Photo by Garth Lenz)

Thirty-five years ago, a Canadian mining company proposed a mountain-top removal, strip coal mine in the two Flathead Coalfield deposits near the Montana – British Columbia border. Following review by the International Joint Commission (Boundary Waters Treaty - 1909) and recommendations from scientists in the mid-1980’s that the coal mine would harm US waters and migratory bull trout, BC withdrew its permit. However in 2004, a different coal mining company proposed another coal mine in the headwaters of the Flathead in the Crowsnest Coalfield. Complicating matters, in 2008 British Columbia proposed coal bed methane exploration for the Crowsnest Coalfield including the Flathead, and Max Resources of Canada discovered gold deposits in the basin. Under the threat of industrialization and intensive open pit mining in the Flathead River basin, the US responded in 2005 in a way not too dissimilar than that of 1975. Citizens in both the US and Canada were concerned that the water, aquatic life and wildlife of

LEFT McDonald Creek and the Garden Wall along the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park. (Photo by Ric

the Transboundary Flathead would be irretrievably harmed. The US established a science team to conduct a comprehensive environmental assessment. We developed a series of intense investigations into the potential and likely impacts of coal mining and coal bed methane development. But, we did something not done in the 1970’s, we developed an experimental design that included comparative analysis between the Flathead and the Elk River Basins; the Elk having had over 100 years of coal mining. The scientific results were compelling. We knew that the water in the Flathead was particularly pure. But, we found that the Elk River and its affected tributaries showed >1000x the nitrate, 100x the sulfate, 10x the selenium concentrations of those found in the Flathead. Aquatic food webs in coalmine–affected waters of the Elk River lost biodiversity as many pollution-sensitive species of stoneflies, caddisflies and mayflies disappeared. In further contrast, the waters in the Flathead support non-hybridized westslope cutthroat trout and populations of endangered bull trout migrating from

Crown of the Continent winter 2011  

2011 Winter issue of the University of Montana Crown of the Continent magazine

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