[Federal Register: November 27, 2000 (Volume 65, Number 228)]
[Page 70729-70731]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]



Fish and Wildlife Service

Availability of a Draft Environmental Assessment and Preliminary 
Finding of No Significant Impact, and Receipt of an Application for an 
Incidental Take Permit for Forest Management and Timber Harvest in 
Mississippi and Alabama

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Notice.


    International Paper (Applicant) has requested an incidental take 
permit (ITP) pursuant to section 10(a)(1)(B) of the Endangered Species 
Act of 1973 (U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), as amended (Act). The Applicant 
anticipates taking the threatened gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) 
over the next 5 years incidental to forest management for timber 
production and wildlife enhancement, road construction, research, and 
timber harvest. The anticipated take and measures to minimize and 
mitigate these takings will occur on 80,000 acres of the Applicant's 
fee simple and leased lands in Lamar, George, Pearl River, Greene, 
Stone, Harrison, Perry, Forrest, and Jackson counties, Mississippi; and 
in Washington and Mobile counties, Alabama. The proposed permit would 
authorize incidental take of up to 1,420 tortoises that are not 
associated with gopher tortoise colonies. Of the tortoises incidentally 
taken, most would be harmed but not actually killed or

[[Page 70730]]

physically injured during this 5-year plan.
    To minimize and mitigate for taking of gopher tortoises, the 
Applicant will protect, restore, and maintain habitat for 1,280 
tortoises within 240 gopher tortoise colonies within stands where 
timber will be thinned or regenerated. Adaptive management will be used 
to ensure that at least 10 colony tortoises are conserved in restored 
and managed habitat for every 11 tortoises potentially subject to 
incidental take. The Applicant's Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) is an 
interim 5-year plan and permit during which time additional research 
and planning will be completed for a more long-term comprehensive HCP. 
A more detailed description of the mitigation and minimization measures 
to address the effects of the Project to the gopher tortoise is 
provided in the Applicant's HCP, the Service's draft Environmental 
Assessment (EA), and in the SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION section below.
    The Service announces the availability of a draft EA and HCP for 
the incidental take application. Copies of the draft EA and/or HCP may 

be obtained by making a request to the Regional Office (see ADDRESSES). 
Requests must be in writing to be processed. This notice also advises 
the public that the Service has made a preliminary determination that 
issuing the ITP is not a major Federal action significantly affecting 
the quality of the human environment within the meaning of Section 
102(2)(C) of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, as amended 
(NEPA). The preliminary Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) is 
based on information contained in the draft EA and HCP. The final 
determination will be made no sooner than 30 days from the date of this 
notice. This notice is provided pursuant to Section 10 of the Act and 
NEPA regulations (40 CFR 1506.6).
    The Service specifically requests information, views, and opinions 
from the public via this Notice on the federal action, including the 
identification of any other aspects of the human environment not 
already identified in the Service's draft EA. Further, the Service 
specifically solicits information regarding the adequacy of the HCP as 
measured against the Service's ITP issuance criteria found in 50 CFR 
Parts 13 and 17.
    If you wish to comment, you may submit comments by any one of 
several methods. Please reference permit number TE033112-0 in such 
comments. You may mail comments to the Service's Regional Office (see 
ADDRESSES). You may also comment via the internet to 
``david__dell@fws.gov''. Please submit comments over the internet as an 
ASCII file avoiding the use of special characters and any form of 
encryption. Please also include your name and return address in your 
internet message. If you do not receive a confirmation from the Service 
that we have received your internet message, contact us directly at 
either telephone number listed below (see FURTHER INFORMATION). 
Finally, you may hand deliver comments to either Service office listed 
below (see ADDRESSES). Our practice is to make comments, including 
names and home addresses of respondents, available for public review 
during regular business hours. Individual respondents may request that 
we withhold their home address from the administrative record. We will 
honor such requests to the extent allowable by law. There may also be 
other circumstances in which we would withhold from the administrative 
record a respondent's identity, as allowable by law. If you wish us to 
withhold your name and address, you must state this prominently at the 
beginning of your comments. We will not; however, consider anonymous 
comments. We will make all submissions from organizations or 
businesses, and from individuals identifying themselves as 
representatives or officials of organizations or businesses, available 
for public inspection in their entirety.

DATES: Written comments on the ITP application, draft EA, and HCP 
should be sent to the Service's Regional Office (see ADDRESSES) and 
should be received on or before December 27, 2000.

ADDRESSES: Persons wishing to review the application, HCP, and EA may 
obtain a copy by writing the Service's Southeast Regional Office, 
Atlanta, Georgia. Documents will also be available for public 
inspection by appointment during normal business hours at the Regional 
Office, 1875 Century Boulevard, Suite 200, Atlanta, Georgia 30345 
(Attn: Endangered Species Permits), or Field Supervisor, U.S. Fish and 
Wildlife Service, 6578 Dogwood View Parkway, Suite A, Jackson, 
Mississippi 39213. Written data or comments concerning the application, 
or HCP should be submitted to the Regional Office. Please reference 
permit number TE033112-0 in requests of the documents discussed herein.

Coordinator, (see ADDRESSES above), telephone: 404/679-7313, facsimile: 
404/679-7081; or Mr. Will McDearman, Fish and Wildlife Biologist, 
Jackson Field Office, Mississippi (see ADDRESSES above), telephone: 

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: The gopher tortoise was listed in 1987 as a 
threatened species in the western part of its geographic range, west of 
the Tombigbee and Mobile Rivers in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. 
The gopher tortoise is a burrowing animal that historically inhabited 
fire-maintained longleaf pine communities on moderately well drained to 
xeric soils in the Coastal Plain. These longleaf pine communities 
consisted of relatively open fire-maintained forests, without a closed 
overstory, with a well developed herbaceous plant layer of grasses and 
forbs. About 80% of the original habitat for gopher tortoises was lost 
by the time the species was listed due to conversions to urban and 
agricultural land use. On remaining forests, management practices 
converting longleaf pine to densely planted pine stands for pulpwood 
production, fire exclusion, and infrequently prescribed fire further 
reduced the open forest with grasses and forbs that tortoises need for 
burrowing, nesting, and feeding. Over 19,000 gopher tortoises have been 
estimated to occur in the listed range. The tortoise, however, is a 
long-lived animal with low reproductive rates. Remaining populations, 
though relatively widespread, are individually small, fragmented, and 
usually in poor habitat without adequate reproduction for a self-
sustaining viable population. Frequent fire no longer naturally occurs 
in the listed range due to past effects of habitat alteration and 
fragmentation. Without prescribed fire and other restoration actions 
the quality of gopher tortoise habitat continues to decline. Land 
management to avoid the incidental take of tortoises will not recover 
the species since restoration and active management to maintain habitat 
is required.
    Under section 9 of the Act and its implementing regulations, 
``taking'' of endangered and threatened wildlife is prohibited. 
However, the Service, under limited circumstances, may issue permits to 
take such wildlife if the taking is incidental to and not the purpose 
of otherwise lawful activities. The Applicant has prepared an HCP as 
required for the incidental take permit application.
    The biological goal of the Applicant's HCP is to conserve, restore, 
and sustain all gopher tortoise colonies for a 5-year period in stands 
where timber will be thinned or regenerated. Prior to timber harvests, 
each stand will be

[[Page 70731]]

comprehensively surveyed for gopher tortoise colonies. A management 
area will be designated for each colony where thinning, prescribed 
fire, and other measures will be used to reduce or eliminate 
encroaching shrubs, hardwoods, and as necessary pine trees to create an 
open forest and optimal conditions for gopher tortoises. Since the 
density of tortoises is greater in colonies, the objective of the plan 
is to conserve and manage segments of the population that most likely 
continue to breed.
    Gopher tortoise surveys on 20,000 acres of transects on the 
Applicant's land have not identified any colonies or populations that 
are potentially viable with 50 or more interbreeding tortoises. Gopher 
tortoises occur, overall, at low densities on the Applicant's land. The 
focus of this interim plan is to conserve the most likely breeding 
segments of the population that are important for short-term survival. 
During this period, a long-term plan will be developed based on 
additional research and comprehensive surveys on up to 80,000 acres of 
habitat. The goal of the future plan is restore and manage habitat for 
aggregations of colonies with the greatest potential to contribute to 
    The HCP has the following objectives:
    1. Survey Applicant's lands within the historic gopher tortoise 
range to identify tortoise occurrence in relation to soil type and 
other habitat parameters in order to develop predictive models of 
tortoise occurrence.
    2. Conduct research to form a scientific basis for submission of an 
HCP for at least an additional 25 years that would seek to build and 
maintain viable gopher tortoise populations on the Applicant's lands.
    3. Conduct research to evaluate adverse effects of mechanized 
forest management and harvesting, and other silvicultural practices on 
gopher tortoises.
    4. Identify gopher tortoise colonies and designate management areas 
around these sites. Improve and perpetuate favorable habitat conditions 
around these management areas.
    5. Conduct research necessary to implement long term mitigation 
with the goal of creating larger, contiguous gopher tortoise management 
units that will become viable population centers contributing to 
species recovery goals.
    6. Demonstrate successful application of adaptive management, sound 
science, and third party involvement in development of a broad-base HCP 
that has the core objective of contributing to gopher tortoise 
    7. Establish management, mitigation, and monitoring protocol for 
implementation of future versions of the HCP in longer term incidental 
take authorizations.
    8. Inform and train applicant's employees, contractors, and 
recreational users on the gopher tortoise management guidelines 
specified in the HCP.
    As stated above, the Service has made a preliminary determination 
that the issuance of the ITP is not a major Federal action 
significantly affecting the quality of the human environment within the 
meaning of section 102(2)(C) of NEPA. This preliminary information may 
be revised due to public comment received in response to this notice 
and is based on information contained in the draft EA and HCP.
    The Service will also evaluate whether the issuance of a section 
10(a)(1)(B) ITP complies with section 7 of the Act by conducting an 
intra-Service section 7 consultation. The results of the biological 
opinion, in combination with the above findings, will be used in the 
final analysis to determine whether or not to issue the ITP.

    Dated: November 17, 2000.
H. Dale Hall,
Acting Regional Director.
[FR Doc. 00-30218 Filed 11-24-00; 8:45 am]