Miner Free to Explore Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin's Reserve

An Australian bauxite mining company has won the right to continue exploration on land that includes a wildlife reserve run by the family of the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, a court ruled Wednesday.

The Queensland state Land Court in Brisbane confirmed that Cape Alumina was lawfully entitled to continue with its exploration and environmental surveys on a portion of the 334,000-acre Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve in Australia's northeast Outback.

The Irwin family holds a long-term cattle-grazing lease on the land, which is ultimately owned by the government.

Cape Alumina hopes to open a mine within the former cattle ranch within four years.

The court also ordered the family of Terri Irwin, the American widow of the media personality and renowned conservationist, to pay Cape Alumina's legal costs.

"Whilst we are pleased with today's decision, we are disappointed we had to take the matter to the Land Court," Cape Alumina chief executive Paul Messenger said in a statement.

He said his company had followed correct procedures in notifying the Irwin company, Silverback Properties, of its exploration activities.

"After eight months of attempting to negotiate and consult with Silverback, we were left with no alternative than to have this matter determined by the Land Court," Messenger said.

Terri Irwin, who continues to run the family's Australia Zoo north of Brisbane, could not be immediately contacted for comment after the judgment.

Cape Alumina initiated the Land Court action to ensure that the company had complied with appropriate exploration notification procedures.

Silverback bought the cattle-grazing lease for the land with the help of a federal government grant after Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray in 2006.

Terri Irwin argues that the property is home to vulnerable plant and animal species and has vowed to maintain the land as a haven for wildlife.

But about 15 percent of the property is also covered by a mining lease held by Cape Alumina, and the company has been exploring the area for the last three years.

Australian law gives mining companies the right to conduct studies on grazing leases.

Test drilling within the lease at Cape Alumina's Pisolite Hills project in June revealed a bauxite deposit of more than 110 million U.S. tons — double that originally predicted, the company said.

The company hopes to mine more than 7.7 million tons from the site a year, starting around 2012.