[Federal Register: July 21, 2005 (Volume 70, Number 139)]
[Page 42084-42085]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]



Fish and Wildlife Service

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Complex

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior.

ACTION: Notice of intent to prepare a Comprehensive Conservation Plan 
and Environmental Assessment for Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge 
Complex in Lauderdale, Limestone, Jackson, Madison and Morgan Counties, 


SUMMARY: This notice advises the public that the Fish and Wildlife 
Service, Southeast Region, intends to gather information necessary to 
prepare a Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Assessment 
for the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Complex, pursuant to the 
National Environmental Policy Act and its implementing regulations.
    The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, as 
amended by the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, 
requires the Service to develop a comprehensive conservation plan for 
each national wildlife refuge. The purpose in developing a 
comprehensive conservation plan is to provide refuge managers with a 
15-year strategy for achieving refuge purposes and contributing toward 
the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System, consistent with 
sound principles of fish and wildlife management, conservation, legal 
mandates, and Service policies. In addition to outlining broad 
management direction on conserving wildlife and their habitats, plans 
identify wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities available to the 
public, including opportunities for hunting, fishing, wildlife 
observation, wildlife photography, and environmental education and 
    The purpose of this notice is to achieve the following:
    (1) Advise other agencies and the public of our intentions, and
    (2) Obtain suggestions and information on the scope of issues to 
include in the environmental document.

DATES: An open house style meeting will be held during the scoping 
phase of the comprehensive conservation plan development process. 
Special mailings, newspaper articles, and other media announcements 
will be used to inform the public and State and local government 
agencies of the dates and opportunities for input throughout the 
planning process.

ADDRESSES: Address comments, questions, and requests for more 
information to John Beck, Refuge Planner, Fish and Wildlife Service, 
2700 Refuge Headquarters Road, Decatur, Alabama 35603; telephone: (256) 
353-7243; Fax: (256) 340-9728; e-mail: john_beck@fws.gov. To ensure 
consideration, written comments must

[[Page 42085]]

be received no later than September 6, 2005. Our practice is to make 
comments, including names and addresses of respondents, available for 
public review during regular business hours. Individual respondents may 
request that we withhold their home address from the record, which we 
will honor to the extent allowable by law.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, in the 
Tennessee River Valley of northern Alabama, was established by 
executive order on July 7, 1938. The refuge is situated within the 
middle third of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Wheeler Reservoir on 
land purchased in 1934 and 1935 by the Authority to serve as a buffer 
strip around the reservoir, which was impounded in 1936. The refuge 
contains land within Morgan, Limestone, and Madison Counties, and is in 
close proximity to the cities of Huntsville and Decatur, Alabama. The 
refuge consists of approximately 35,000 acres, including 19,500 acres 
of land and 15,500 acres of water. It is well developed with more than 
100 miles of graveled roads, 2,500 acres of managed wetlands, a modern 
Headquarters Complex with a large Visitor Center and a Waterfowl 
Observation Building. Public use is heavy and approximately 700,000 
visitors are reported annually.
    The primary purpose of the refuge is to provide habitat, food, and 
shelter for migratory waterfowl and other wildlife. This refuge 
supports Alabama's only significant concentration of wintering Canada 
geese. It also serves as winter habitat for the State's largest duck 
population. It was the first national wildlife refuge placed on a 
multipurpose reservoir and has supported up to 60,000 geese and nearly 
100,000 ducks, although peaks until 1990 were nearer 30,000 geese and 
60,000 ducks. Since 1990, winter goose populations have dropped 
significantly; below 15,000 from 1990-1995 and about 2,500-5,500 in the 
last few years. Snow geese are now the most prominent competent of the 
winter goose population, peaking near 1,500-3,200 in recent years. The 
refuge supports interesting flora, a bird list consisting of 288 
species, 47 species of mammals, 115 species of fish and a wide variety 
(74 species) of reptiles and amphibians. Furthermore, the refuge is 
home to 10 federally protected endangered species.
    Wheeler Refuge has three satellite refuges, all established to 
protect endangered species. These are: Sauta Cave (formerly Blowing 
Wind Cave) National Wildlife Refuge, near Scottsboro, Jackson County, 
Alabama; Fern Cave National Wildlife Refuge, near Paint Rock, Jackson 
County, Alabama; and Key Cave National Wildlife Refuge near Florence, 
Lauderdale County, Alabama. All together, these refuges comprise the 
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
    Sauta Cave Refuge consists of 264 acres and was purchased in 1978 
to provide protection for the federally endangered gray bat (Myotis 
grisescens) and the Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis) and their critical 
habitat. The cave provides a summer roosting site for about 200,000-
300,000 gray bats and a winter hibernaculum for both the gray and 
Indiana bat. There are two entrances into the cave on the refuge but 
they are closed to the public.
     As is the case with many large caves, rare and unique species 
occur in Sauta Cave. As a result, the Alabama Natural Heritage Program 
ranks the cave's biodiversity as a site of very high significance. In 
addition to the rare fauna within the cave, the federally endangered 
Price's potato bean (Apios priceana) occurs on the refuge. All 264 
acres of habitat outside of the cave are predominately hardwood forest.
    Fern Cave Refuge was purchased in 1981 to provide protection for 
the federally endangered gray and Indiana bats. It consists of 199 
cares of forested hillside underlain by a massive cave with many 
stalactite- and stalagmite-filled rooms. The cave has five hidden 
entrances with four occuring on the refuge. The refuge contains the 
largest wintering colony of gray bats in the United States with more 
than one million bats hibernating there in the winter. Bat experts also 
think that as many as one million Indiana bats may be using the cave.
    Access is extremely difficult and has been described as a vertical 
and horizontal maze by expert cavers. Horizontal sections of the cave 
are known to be more than 15 miles long and vertical drops of 450 feet 
are found within. Spectacular features, including unrivaled formations, 
important paleological and archaeological finds, and diverse cave 
fauna, have contributed to Fern Cave being described as the most 
spectacular cave in the United States. Additionally, the endangered 
American Hart's-tongue fern (Phyllitis scolopendrium) is found on the 
    Key Cave Refuge, about 5 miles southwest of Florence, Alabama, was 
established in 1997 to ensure the biological integrity of Key Cave, 
Collier Cave, and the aquifer common to both. Key Cave has been 
designated as critical habitat for the endangered Alabama cavefish 
(Speoplatyrhinus poulsoni) and as a priority one maternity cave for the 
endangered gray bat. Collier Cave, approximately 1.5 miles upstream 
from Key Cave and within the acquisition boundary, is important to both 
species as potential habitat. Both caves are on the northern shore of 
Pickwick Lake in a limestone karst area that contains numerous 
sinkholes and several underground cave systems. the area's sinkholes 
are an integral component of groundwater recharge to the caves. The 
area directly north of Key Cave was identified as a potential high 
hazard risk area for groundwater recharge and this is where the 1,060-
acre refuge was established.
    Two species of blind crayfish (Procambarus pecki and Cambarus 
jonesi) also inhabit Key Cave. Several bird species that are of 
management concern also use the refuge's grasslands. These species 
include grasshopper sparrows, dickcissels, northern harriers, short-
eared owls, loggerhead shrikes, and northern bobwhites.

    Authority: This notice is published under the authority of the 
National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1977, Public Law 

    Dated: June 17, 2005.
Cynthia K. Dohner,
Acting Regional Director.
[FR Doc. 05-14382 Filed 7-20-05; 8:45 am]