[Federal Register: July 28, 2000 (Volume 65, Number 146)]
[Page 46489-46492]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]



Fish and Wildlife Service

Intent To Prepare a Joint Environmental Impact Statement/
Environmental Impact Report for the Reintroduction of the Riparian 
Brush Rabbit

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior (Lead Agency).

ACTION: Notice of intent.


SUMMARY: The Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), Bureau of Reclamation 
(Reclamation), California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), and the 
Endangered Species Recovery Program (ESRP) through California State 
University, Stanislaus, propose to participate in the reintroduction of 
the riparian brush rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani riparius), which is 
federally listed as endangered, to restored riparian habitat.
    The strategy for the conservation (i.e. recovery) of the riparian 
brush rabbit was published in the Recovery Plan for the Upland Species 
of the San Joaquin Valley (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1998). This 
recovery plan outlines research and management actions necessary to 
support recovery of the species. It is the intent of the Service to 
recover federally listed species through actions which will lead to the 
maintenance of secure, self-sustaining wild populations of species with 
the minimum necessary investment of resources. In the case of a species 
as at risk of extinction as the riparian brush rabbit, efforts 
necessary to bring about recovery often require extraordinary measures. 
Because of the small size of remaining blocks of potential habitat, and 
the severely limited dispersal capability of the riparian brush rabbit, 
the brush rabbit is likely to require continuing special protection of 
its habitat and population. More specifically, captive breeding is 
needed to increase riparian brush rabbit numbers and preserve genetic 
diversity. Additionally, the release of their progeny will be needed to 
enhance existing populations as necessary and to

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establish reintroduced populations within the historic range.
    The action proposed in this Notice of Intent, the reintroduction of 
riparian brush rabbits to restored riparian habitat, is considered a 
beneficial action. The Service does, however, recognize that there may 
be impacts to the human environment associated with reintroduction.
    This notice describes the proposed action and possible 
alternatives, invites public participation in the scoping process for 
preparing the joint Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact 
Report, solicits written comments, and identifies the Service Official 
to whom questions and comments concerning the proposed action and the 
Environmental Impact Statement may be directed.

DATES: A public scoping meeting to solicit public comment on the 
proposed action and alternatives will be held on August 16, 2000, at 
the Manteca library, Manteca, California from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Written 
comments are encouraged and should be received on or before August 28, 

ADDRESSES: Information, comments, or questions related to preparation 
of the Environmental Impact Statement and the National Environmental 
Policy Act process should be submitted to Wayne White, Field 
Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sacramento Fish and 
Wildlife Office, 2800 Cottage Way, W-2605, Sacramento, California 
95825. Written comments may also be sent by facsimile to (916) 414-
6713. All comments, including names and addresses, will become part of 
the administrative record and may be released.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Questions regarding the scoping 
process or preparation of the Environmental Impact Statement may be 
directed to Ms. Heather Bell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2800 
Cottage Way, Suite W-2605, Sacramento, CA 95825-1888 (telephone 916-
414-6600; email heather_bell@fws.gov) for questions concerning the 
Environmental Impact Report process under the California Environmental 
Quality Act, please contact Mr. Ron Schlorff, California Department of 
Fish and Game, 1416 9th Street, Sacramento, CA 95814-5509 (telephone 
916-654-4262; email rschlorf@dfg.ca.gov).



    Only two very small populations of riparian brush rabbit are known 
to exist (a population in Caswell Memorial State Park [MSP] and one in 
the Delta. Both populations face severe and proximate extinction due to 
various factors. One goal in the Conservation Recommendations for the 
riparian brush rabbit, as identified in the Recovery Plan for Upland 
Species of the San Joaquin Valley (Recovery Plan) (U.S. Fish and 
Wildlife Service 1998), is the reestablishment of at least three wild 
populations, in addition to the one at Caswell MSP, each with no less 
than 300 adults during average years during a precipitation cycle in 
the San Joaquin Valley in restored and expanded suitable habitat within 
the rabbit's historic range. Because the Caswell MSP and Delta 
populations remain in isolated pockets of habitat, and the species 
exhibits low vagility (ability to move between patches of habitat), the 
natural process of repatriation (dispersal into remaining habitat) is 
improbable. Reintroductions from existing populations are required to 
achieve the goal of establishing three wild populations. An action 
identified in the Recovery Plan which will help to accomplish this is 
the implementation of a captive breeding program and a reintroduction 
program. The Caswell MSP population is currently too small, 
nonproductive, and lacking in sufficient genetic variety to serve as 
the best source of rabbits for direct reintroduction. The Delta 
population has somewhat greater genetic diversity and, therefore, is 
intended to be used as the source of individuals for the captive 
breeding program. Captive breeding will take place on land owned by the 
California Department of Water Resources within large enclosed pens of 
natural habitat. The captive breeding program is designed to produce 
enough individuals with the highest possible genetic variability for 
reintroduction. The reintroduction would involve preparation of a 
reintroduction plan, site assessments, and varying degrees of riparian 
restoration, refugia construction, hunting restrictions, fire 
management, and finally, monitoring to insure that site specific goals 
as well as recovery goals are being met. Alternatives are being sought 
as to where and under what conditions populations will be reestablished 
through reintroduction.

Project Location

    The reintroduction sites are yet to be determined, however, the 
general area for reintroduction will be within the historic range of 
the riparian brush rabbit. The riparian brush rabbit most likely ranged 
throughout the extensive riparian forests along major streams flowing 
onto the floor of the northern San Joaquin Valley (64 FR 8881). This 
includes the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, one of which is the 
Stanislaus River, current site of the Caswell MSP population. We also 
now have confirmation that the riparian brush rabbit extends northward 
into the Delta (Dr. Daniel Williams, CSU, Stanislaus, pers. comm. 
1999). Directed restoration of habitat for the reintroduction of 
riparian brush rabbits will be conducted and coordinated with several 
other agencies who are restoring riparian habitat, as well as willing 
private landowners. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is 
restoring riparian habitat for ecosystem functioning and improved flood 
flow capacity along the Stanislaus and San Joaquin Rivers. Reclamation 
also has authority and funding for conservation of natural resources; 
it allocates funds--through the Central Valley Project Improvement 
Act--for the restoration of habitats impacted by the Central Valley 
Project. Furthermore, the Service is expanding the San Joaquin River 
National Wildlife Refuge to provide protection and potential 
enhancement of essential habitat for the riparian brush rabbit and 
other species. It is anticipated that the Refuge land will be the first 
site available to receive rabbits. Specific site locations for 
reintroduction will be ranked based on a set of requirements proposed 
below. Tiered environmental documents would be prepared once site 
locations have been identified.

Proposed Action

    The 1998 Recovery Plan for Upland Species of the San Joaquin Valley 
(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1998) identifies the conservation 
strategy for the riparian brush rabbit which involves implementation of 
a captive breeding program and an accompanying reintroduction program 
as a means to achieve recovery. The captive breeding program would 
provide animals for the establishment of at least three wild 
populations (additional to the Caswell MSP population) in the San 
Joaquin Valley, in restored and expanded suitable habitat within the 
rabbit's historic range. It is anticipated that the Reintroduction 
program would consist of at least the following elements: (1) 
Preparation of a reintroduction plan; (2) development of site 
assessment criteria; (3) restoration of riparian habitat, as 
appropriate, at chosen sites; (4) construction of appropriate refugia 
(from flooding); (5) implementation of hunting restrictions; (6) fire 
management; and (7) implementation of a monitoring program to track the 
progress of the Reintroduction program.

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    Specific site locations for reintroduction within the historic 
range will be ranked based on a set of additional criteria which will 
include but are not limited to the following factors:
    <bullet> Assessment of disease risk,
    <bullet> Public or private ownership of property,
    <bullet> Assessment of flood risk and availability of refugia 
during high water,
    <bullet> Degree of riparian restoration required, and
    <bullet> Degree of land use conflict.
    Funding for the Reintroduction program for riparian brush rabbits 
is anticipated to come from several public agencies and associated 
programs including, but not necessarily limited to the Service, 
Reclamation, CDFG, and the CALFED (a program formalized by a Framework 
Agreement where State and Federal agencies work together on Bay-Delta 
Estuary management issues) program.
    More cooperators are possible as the process continues. Potential 
partners include: Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. 
Department of Agriculture, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. 
Department of the Army, California Department of Parks and Recreation, 
California Department of Water Resources, California Reclamation Board, 
and other public and private owners of riparian or riverbank land.
    This action is being proposed under the authority of the Endangered 
Species Act of 1973, as amended. Take authorization under section 
10(a)(1)(A) of the Endangered Species Act would be issued to ESRP to 
carry out the capture, propagation, and reintroduction program.


    Over the past several years, the Service and Reclamation have been 
working together to prevent extirpation of the riparian brush rabbit at 
Caswell MSP. Due to the low numbers of individuals following the floods 
in January of 1997 and 1998 and the sluggish increase since then, we 
began deliberating the implementation of a captive breeding program to 
augment the population and provide individuals for reestablishment of 
populations within historic habitat. Reestablishment, through 
reintroduction, will protect the species from catastrophic events, such 
as flooding, which could lead to extinction. With the discovery that 
another population of riparian brush rabbits exist on private land in 
the Delta, and that this population is at risk due to both human 
activities (fire control measures and habitat conversion) and 
catastrophic events (wildfire), completing the facility for the captive 
breeding program became urgent. Rabbits are scheduled to be brought 
into captivity in the fall of 2000, and reintroductions are projected 
to begin in the fall of 2001. This necessitates establishing a 
reintroduction program expediently and beginning preparation of sites 
as soon as possible. Therefore, we need to determine where and under 
what conditions populations will be reestablished through 
reintroduction. Reintroduction choices might include:
    <bullet> Private versus government land,
    <bullet> Existing habitat versus restored or enhanced habitat, or
    <bullet> Sites at or near Caswell MSP, the capture area in the 
Delta, San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge, or at other locations in 
the brush rabbit's historical range.
    Several considerations have influenced the alternatives we are 
considering. We will be choosing reintroduction sites within the 
historic range of the riparian brush rabbit. The riparian brush rabbit 
probably inhabited much of the riparian habitat that existed 
historically along the rivers and sloughs on the valley floor of the 
northern San Joaquin Valley. However, most of the original riparian 
woodland and brushland has been destroyed. We plan to choose specific 
sites according to their rank based on the factors needed for the 
habitat to be suitable. To reduce potential land use conflicts, we will 
concentrate our efforts on public lands, with the possibility of 
incorporating adjacent areas where conservation easements or fee title 
acquisitions may become available from willing sellers.
    Another consideration that we expect to be important to the success 
of reintroduction is the relative ease of management of the 
reintroduction sites. The flood events of recent years demonstrate the 
value of having flood refugia in areas to be managed for riparian brush 
rabbits. Similarly, recent fires in the Delta area where brush rabbits 
have been found demonstrate the importance of being able to manage fire 
breaks, fuel loads, and water supplies for fire suppression to insure 
the safety of the brush rabbits, as well as minimizing risks to human 
property and safety.
    One of the types of land we are strongly considering is National 
Wildlife Refuge land. Management for good ecosystem functioning, 
healthy populations of native wildlife species, and conservation of 
endangered species is already part of the recognized purpose of Refuge 
lands, and preliminary discussions with National Wildlife Refuge 
managers indicate they are willing to participate in reestablishing 
riparian brush rabbits on the Refuges. Other properties, already in 
government ownership or available from willing sellers, are also being 
considered. We do not foresee conflicts between rabbit reintroduction 
and most neighboring land uses because riparian brush rabbits remain 
near brush cover. However, we know that we must give careful 
consideration to the compatibility of brush rabbit management with the 
existing purposes and uses of such lands. This issue, in particular, is 
one for which we are seeking public input. We want to consider all 
possible conflicts. We welcome suggestions for sites with potential 
habitat and harmonious land uses. Please be sure to include as much 
information on these points as possible in your comments to us.
    The Environmental Impact Statement will consider the proposed 
action (reintroduction of the riparian brush rabbit into restored 
historic habitat) and reasonable alternatives. Potential alternatives 
may include the reintroduction of rabbits only in areas of existing 
riparian habitat, and the ``No Action'' alternative. The preferred 
alternative (the proposed action) entails assessing an array of sites 
for suitability, managing to maximize ecosystem function and safety, 
and implementing controlled reintroductions as the suitability of each 
site becomes adequate and as the number of rabbits available becomes 
sufficient. The potential alternative of reintroducing riparian brush 
rabbits into areas of existing riparian habitat has limitations as 
there is little publically owned land which has existing riparian 
habitat that would immediately be suitable for rabbits during flooding 
events. The No Action alternative is one in which no reintroduction of 
the riparian brush rabbits will take place, with the resulting 
probability of their extinction. As a result of the scoping process, it 
is expected that these preliminary project alternatives will be further 
refined and/or additional alternatives considered. Once identified, the 
final alternatives will be carried forward into detailed analyses 
pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, as 
amended (42 U.S.C. 432 et seq.) and the California Environmental 
Quality Act (CEQA) of 1970, as amended (Public Resources Code, Section 
    Potential impacts identified thus far include possible land use 
restrictions (hunting, rodenticide use, vegetation management, levee 
maintenance), economic impacts (conservation and

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flood easement restriction enforcement, land acquisition, riparian 
restoration, nonnative species control, fire management, species and 
habitat monitoring, perceived devaluation of property values), impacts 
to the riparian brush rabbit (mortality during acclimation, disease 
transference), and cultural resource impacts due to riparian 
restoration or refugia construction.

Scoping Process

    The Service and the CDFG are preparing a joint Environmental Impact 
Statement/Report (EIS/R) to address potential impacts associated with 
implementing their respective discretionary actions for the proposed 
project. The Service is the lead Federal agency and Reclamation is a 
cooperator for compliance with NEPA for the Federal aspects of the 
project, and the CDFG is the lead State agency for compliance with CEQA 
for the non-Federal aspects of the project. The Draft EIS/R (DEIS/R) 
document will incorporate public concerns in the analysis of impacts 
associated with the Proposed Action and associated project 
alternatives. The DEIS/R will be sent out for a minimum 45-day public 
review period, during which time both written and verbal comments will 
be solicited on the adequacy of the document. The Final EIS/R (FEIS/R) 
will address the comments received on the DEIS/R during public review, 
and will be furnished to all who commented on the DEIS/R, and made 
available to anyone who requests a copy during a minimum 30-day period 
following publication of the FEIS/R. The final steps involve, for the 
Federal EIS, preparing a Record of Decision (ROD) and, for the State 
EIR, certifying the EIR and adopting a Mitigation Monitoring and 
Reporting Plan. The ROD is a concise summary of the decisions made by 
the Service (in cooperation with Reclamation) from among the 
alternatives presented in the FEIS/R. A certified EIR indicates that 
the environmental document has been completed in compliance with CEQA, 
that the decision-making body of the lead agency reviewed and 
considered the FEIR prior to approving the project; and that the FEIR 
reflects the lead agency's independent judgement and analysis.
    This notice is provided pursuant to regulations for implementing 
the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (40 CFR 1506.6).

    Dated: July 10, 2000.
John Engbring,
Acting Manager, California/Nevada Operations Office, Region 1, 
Sacramento, California.
[FR Doc. 00-17986 Filed 7-27-00; 8:45 am]