[Federal Register Volume 77, Number 88 (Monday, May 7, 2012)]
[Pages 26781-26784]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2012-10886]

[[Page 26781]]



Fish and Wildlife Service

[FWS-R6-R-2011-N269; FF06R06000-FXRS1266066CCP0S3-123]

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and UL Bend National 
Wildlife Refuge, MT

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Notice of availability: Final comprehensive conservation plan 
and final environmental impact statement.


SUMMARY: We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), announce the 
availability of a final comprehensive conservation plan (CCP) and final 
environmental impact statement (EIS) for Charles M. Russell and UL Bend 
National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs, Refuges). In these documents, we 
describe alternatives, including our preferred alternative, to manage 
these refuges for the 15 years following approval of the final CCP.

ADDRESSES: You may request copies (hard copies or a CD-ROM) or more 
information by any of the following methods:
    Agency Web site: Download a copy of the documents at www.fws.gov/cmr/planning.
    Email: cmrplanning@fws.gov. Include ``Request copy of Charles M. 
Russell NWR Final CCP/EIS'' in the subject line of the message.
    Mail: Charles M. Russell NWR Final CCP/EIS, P.O. Box 110, 
Lewistown, MT 59457.
    In-Person Viewing or Pickup: Call (406) 538-8706 to make an 
appointment during regular business hours at Charles M. Russell NWR 
Headquarters, Airport Road, Lewistown, MT 59457.
    Local Library or Libraries: The final documents are available for 
review at the libraries listed under SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Richard Potts, Project Leader, at 
(406) 538-8706, or Laurie Shannon, Planning Team Leader, (303) 236-
4317; laurie_shannon@fws.gov (email).



    With this notice, we announce the availability of the final CCP and 
final EIS for Charles M. Russell and UL Bend NWRs. We started this 
process through a notice in the Federal Register (72 FR 68174, December 
4, 2007). Following a lengthy scoping and alternatives development 
period, we published a second notice in the Federal Register (75 FR 
54381, September 7, 2010) announcing the availability of the draft CCP 
and draft EIS and our intention to hold public meetings, and requested 
comments. We published a third notice in the Federal Register (75 FR 
67095, November 1, 2010) extending the comment period by 24 days to 
December 10, 2010.
    Charles M. Russell and UL Bend NWRs encompass nearly 1.1 million 
acres, including Fort Peck Reservoir in north central Montana. The 
Refuges extend about 125 air miles west from Fort Peck Dam to the 
western edge at the boundary of the Upper Missouri Breaks National 
Monument. UL Bend NWR lies within Charles M. Russell NWR. In essence, 
UL Bend is a refuge within a refuge, and the two refuges are managed as 
one unit and referred to as Charles M. Russell NWR. Refuge habitat 
includes native prairie, forested coulees, river bottoms, and badlands. 
Wildlife is as diverse as the topography and includes Rocky Mountain 
elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, Rocky Mountain bighorn 
sheep, sharp-tailed grouse, greater sage-grouse, Sprague's pipit, 
black-footed ferrets, prairie dogs, and more than 236 species of birds.


The CCP Process

    The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 (16 
U.S.C. 668dd-668ee) (Administration Act), as amended by the National 
Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, requires us to develop 
a CCP for each national wildlife refuge. The purpose for developing a 
CCP is to provide refuge managers with a 15-year plan for achieving 
refuge purposes and contributing toward the mission of the National 
Wildlife Refuge System, which is consistent with sound principles of 
fish and wildlife management, conservation, legal mandates, and our 
policies. In addition to outlining broad management direction on 
conserving wildlife and their habitats, CCPs identify wildlife-
dependent recreational opportunities available to the public, including 
opportunities for hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and 
photography, and environmental education and interpretation. We will 
review and update the CCP at least every 15 years in accordance with 
the Administration Act.

Public Outreach

    The formal scoping period began on December 4, 2007, with the 
publication of a notice of intent in the Federal Register (72 FR 
68174). Prior to this and early in the preplanning phase, we outlined a 
process that would be inclusive of diverse stakeholder interests and 
would involve a range of activities for keeping the public informed and 
ensure meaningful public input. This process was summarized in a 
planning update titled Public Involvement Summary (October 2007). Soon 
after, a project Web site was created, and since then the Public 
Involvement Summary, five additional planning updates, and other 
information have been posted to the Web site. We have mailed all 
planning updates to the project mailing list.
    We began the process with formal notification to Native American 
tribes and other Federal and State agencies. Subsequently, there are a 
number of cooperating agencies participating on the planning project, 
including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Bureau of Land Management; 
Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; Montana Department of Natural 
Resources and Conservation; Fergus, Petroleum, Garfield, McCone, 
Valley, and Phillips Counties; and the Missouri River Council of 
Conservation Districts. We also formally consulted with the Fort 
Belknap and Fort Peck tribes in July 2009 and have encouraged their 
participation in the process.
    During the initial scoping period, we received nearly 24,000 
written responses. Hundreds of people attended seven public meetings 
across Montana, providing many verbal comments. Following the comment 
period, we summarized the information we learned and prepared a scoping 
report, which was posted to the project Web site. In the fall of 2008, 
we again reached out to the public and the cooperating agencies and 
sought additional input on four potential draft alternatives prior to 
fully developing and analyzing them. We held seven additional public 
meetings during this time and received hundreds of additional written 
and oral responses. On September 7, 2010, we announced the availability 
of the draft CCP and draft EIS (75 FR 54381). During September and 
October 2010, we held seven public meetings across Montana. During the 
comment period, we received 20,600 letters, emails, or verbal comments. 
In total, we have held 21 public meetings since the planning process 
    We have considered all public comments throughout the process and 
have incorporated them in numerous ways. The significant issues for the 
project include several issues related to habitat and wildlife, water 
resources, public use and access, wilderness, socioeconomics, 
partnerships and

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collaboration, and cultural values, traditions, and resources. We have 
considered and evaluated all of these comments, with many incorporated 
into the various alternatives addressed in the final CCP and final EIS.

CCP Alternatives Considered

    Our draft CCP and draft EIS (75 FR 54381) addressed several issues 
that were raised during the scoping process. To address these issues, 
we developed, evaluated, and subsequently published four alternatives 
which are summarized below. A full description of each alternative is 
described in the final CCP and final EIS.
    Alternative A--No Action. Few changes would occur in the management 
of existing wildlife populations and habitats. Wildlife-dependent 
public and economic uses would continue at current levels. Key actions 
     There would be continued emphasis on big game management; 
annual livestock grazing; the use of fencing for pastures; invasive 
species control; and water development. Habitats would be managed in 65 
habitat units that were originally established by the Bureau of Land 
     Prescriptive grazing would be implemented as habitat units 
became available and within 15 years, we expect that 50 percent of the 
refuge would transition to prescriptive-type grazing. Currently about 
34 percent of the units are prescriptively grazed. This regimen 
consists of long-term rest and/or short-term grazing to meet specific 
habitat objectives.
     We would manage big game to achieve the target levels 
identified in an earlier EIS developed in 1986. There could be more 
restrictive regulations for rifle mule deer harvest on portions of the 
refuge as compared with State regulations.
     Select stock ponds would be maintained and rehabilitated. 
Riparian habitat would be restored where possible.
     The public would continue to access the Refuge on 670 
miles of roads. In addition to the designated wilderness within UL Bend 
National Wildlife Refuge, about 155,288 acres of proposed wilderness 
within 15 units of the Charles M. Russell NWR would be managed in 
accordance with Service policy.
    Alternative B--Wildlife Population Emphasis. We would manage the 
landscape, in cooperation with our partners, to emphasize the abundance 
of wildlife populations using balanced natural ecological processes 
such as fire and grazing by wild ungulates and responsible farming 
practices and tree planting. Wildlife-dependent public use would be 
encouraged, and economic uses would be limited when they compete for 
habitat resources. Key actions follow:
     Habitat would be actively managed and manipulated, thus 
creating a diverse plant community of highly productive wildlife food 
and cover plants. The emphasis would be on habitat for targeted species 
of wildlife in separate parts of the Refuge. We would consolidate the 
65 habitat units into fewer units that are ecologically similar and 
subsequently write new habitat management plans. Former agricultural 
fields in river bottom areas would be aggressively restored, and we 
would restore the functioning condition of riparian areas. Prescriptive 
livestock grazing would be implemented across 50-75 percent of the 
Refuge within 4-7 years, and interior fencing would be removed, if 
necessary. We would increase the use of prescribed fire to enhance 
fire-adapted plants. We would also implement several research projects 
to determine what impacts are occurring on the Refuge as a result of 
     Additional habitat suitable for Rocky Mountain bighorn 
sheep would be identified, and new populations would be established. 
Quality hunting experiences for harvesting elk, deer, bighorn sheep, 
and other big game would be promoted.
     About 106 miles of roads would be closed. The Service 
would work with partners to develop a travel plan and to secure access 
to the Refuge through other lands.
     The acreage of proposed wilderness would be expanded by 
25,869 acres in 9 existing units.
    Alternative C--Public Use and Economic Use Emphasis. We would 
manage the landscape, in cooperation with our partners, to emphasize 
and promote the maximum compatible wildlife-dependent public use and 
economic uses while protecting wildlife populations and habitats to the 
extent possible. Any damaging effects on wildlife habitat would be 
minimized while using a variety of management tools to enhance and 
diversify public and economic opportunities. Key actions follow:
     In addition to the habitat elements identified in 
Alternative A, habitats would be managed to provide more opportunities 
for wildlife-dependent recreation. This could require a compromise 
between providing wildlife food and cover and livestock forage needs. 
Where needed, fencing and water gaps would be used to manage livestock 
use and prevent further degradation of riparian habitat.
     There would be a gradual move to a prescriptive livestock 
grazing program when current grazing permits become available due to a 
change in ranch ownership (50 percent in 15 years). Prescribed fire 
would be used primarily to reduce hazardous fuels. An aggressive 
initial attack would be used in identified habitat units to minimize 
economic losses from wildfire. We would also implement several research 
projects to determine what impacts are occurring on the Refuge as a 
result of climate.
     Natural and constructed water sources would be allowed for 
livestock use, public fishing, and hunting. Future water developments 
would be allowed on a site-specific basis.
     A balance would be maintained between the numbers of big 
game and livestock in order to sustain habitats and populations of big 
game and sharp-tailed grouse. Similar balancing might be needed for 
nongame or migratory birds and livestock needs.
     Hunting opportunities would be expanded and maximized to 
include new species and traditional or niche (primitive weapon) 
hunting, mule deer season, predator hunting, trapping, and 
opportunities for young hunters.
     We would manage Refuge access to benefit public and 
economic uses. Access to boat ramps would be improved, and roads could 
be improved or seasonally closed where needed. The numbers of visitors 
participating in wildlife observation and other activities would be 
increased by a moderate amount through increased programs and 
     There would be no expansions to existing proposed 
wilderness areas.
    Alternative D--Preferred Alternative--Ecological Processes 
Emphasis. In cooperation with our partners, we would use natural, 
dynamic, ecological processes, and management activities in a balanced, 
responsible manner to restore and maintain the biological diversity, 
biological integrity, and environmental health of the Refuge. Once 
natural processes are restored, a more passive approach (less human 
assistance) would be favored. There would be quality wildlife-dependent 
public uses and experiences. Economic uses would be limited when they 
are injurious to ecological processes. Key actions follow:
     Management practices that mimic and restore natural 
processes, as well as maintain a diversity of plant species in upland 
and riparian areas on the Refuge, will be applied.

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     Plant diversity and health would be maintained by using 
natural and prescribed fire in combination with wild ungulate herbivory 
(wildlife feeding on plants) or prescriptive livestock grazing, or 
both, to ensure the viability of sentinel plants (those plants that 
decline first when management practices are injurious). To achieve this 
goal, prescriptive livestock grazing, on up to 75 percent of the Refuge 
within 9 years, would be implemented to reduce the number of habitat 
units, remove unnecessary fencing, and to restore degraded riparian 
areas. The Service would work with partners to combat invasive weeds. 
We would also implement several research projects to determine what 
impacts are occurring on the Refuge as a result of climate change, 
focusing on the resiliency of plants to adapt to climate change.
     The Service would collaborate with Montana Department of 
Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and others, to maintain the health and 
diversity of all species' populations, including game, nongame, and 
migratory bird species. These efforts will focus on restoring and 
maintaining balanced, self-sustaining populations. Limited hunting for 
predators would be considered only after population levels could be 
verified and sustained. The Service would provide for a variety of 
quality hunting opportunities, including those with population 
objectives that have diverse male age structures.
     Refuge access would be managed to benefit natural 
processes and habitat. Permanent and seasonal road closures would be 
implemented on at least 21 miles of roads as needed, to encourage free 
movement of animals, permit prescribed fire activities, harvest 
wildlife ungulates, or allow other activities that contribute to 
ecological health. The numbers of visitors participating in wildlife 
observation and other activities would be increased through increased 
quality programs and facilities.
     The Service would recommend expanding 8 of the proposed 
wilderness units by 19,942 acres.


    We solicited comments on the draft CCP and draft EIS from September 
7, 2010 (75 FR 54381) (following an extension of the comment period, 75 
FR 67095) through December, 10, 2010. During the comment period, we 
received about 20,600 letters, emails, or verbal comments, and we 
thoroughly evaluated them all.

Changes to the Final CCP and Final EIS

    We made the following changes in the final CCP and final EIS from 
the draft CCP and draft EIS:
     Wilderness. We clarified that the proposed additions to 
the existing proposed wilderness areas would become wilderness study 
areas. These were transmitted to the U.S. Congress in 1974 but have not 
been acted upon. We determined that there is not sufficient 
justification for recommending the removal of any existing proposed 
wilderness area as previously considered in alternatives C and D. 
Subsequently, the wilderness appendix (E) was revised. As a result, the 
acreage for the wilderness study areas in alternative B was changed to 
25,869 acres and in alternative D to 19,942 acres. We noted a mapping 
error in the draft CCP and EIS where 640 acres in East Seven Blackfoot 
was mislabeled as State land. We identified it as a wilderness study 
area in alternatives B and D as it is surrounded entirely by a Service 
proposed wilderness area or a Bureau of Land Management wilderness 
study area.
     Roads. We made several changes to alternative D as a 
result of significant public comment about roads. This included 
changing Road 315 in Petroleum County to a seasonal closure from a 
permanent closure in the draft EIS. We also identified 13 miles of 
roads to be closed seasonally during hunting season in Valley County 
(Roads 331, 332, 333, and 440). These roads would be opened several 
hours a day for game retrieval only. This will encourage free movement 
of wildlife and permit effective harvest of ungulates, while allowing 
access for hunters who are not physically able to carry out their game 
over the rugged terrain found on the refuge. In the draft CCP and draft 
EIS, we evaluated a full closure of these roads under alternative B.
     Wildlife objectives. We adjusted and clarified that the 
objectives for big game in alternative D would meet or exceed the 
objectives approved in State plans. Refuge-specific abundance and 
population composition objectives would be established through the 
habitat management planning process and would be tailored to regional 
habitat conditions, productivity, and other considerations including 
functioning ecosystem processes; biological integrity; and high quality 
hunting opportunities and experiences.
     Habitat objectives and strategies. We clarified and 
expanded our discussion about the use of prescriptive grazing including 
a discussion of how it is currently applied and how it would be applied 
in the future. Under all alternatives, we will continue to transition 
towards implementing prescriptive grazing and reducing annual grazing. 
This transition has been occurring over 20 years and is consistent with 
Service policies. The alternatives vary on how quickly this would 
occur. We expanded the discussion on our plant monitoring which we 
identified as sentinel plant monitoring to identify plants that are 
important for wildlife and are sensitive to changes in management or 
environmental conditions. We have been monitoring these changes since 
2003. We also clarified the miles of streams under each alternative 
that will be improved as a result of restoration efforts.
     Focal bird species. We identified focal bird species for 
three of the refuge's broad habitat categories (upland, river bottoms, 
and riparian). We have tied the plant monitoring in alternative D and 
to a lesser extent in alternative B to focal bird species monitoring on 
the refuge. Previously we identified several birds as potential 
sentinel bird species. In order to be more consistent with the 
terminology being used by other program areas within the Service, we 
have changed it to focal bird species, and expanded our discussion 
about the importance of these species on the refuge.
     Minerals, land acquisition, water and air quality, climate 
change, and legal mandates. We made a number of clarifications or 
expanded the discussion on all of these topics. For example, we 
clarified that under all alternatives we will continue to acquire land 
from willing sellers within the approved refuge boundary or in 
accordance with the provisions of Title VIII of the Water Resources 
Development Act of 2000 (known as the Charles M. Russell National 
Wildlife Refuge Enhancement Act; Public Law 106-541). We added climate 
change to several of the goal statements, including habitat and 
wildlife and research.

Public Availability of Documents

    You can view or obtain documents at the following locations:
     Our Web site: www.fws.gov/cmr/planning.
     The following public libraries:

            Library                     Address             Phone No.
Garfield County...............  228 E. Main, Jordan,    (406) 557-2297
                                 MT 59337.

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Glasgow.......................  408 3rd Avenue,         (406) 228-2731
                                 Glasgow, MT 59230.
Great Falls...................  301 2nd Avenue, Great   (406) 453-0349
                                 Falls, MT 59401.
Lewistown.....................  701 W. Main,            (406) 538-5212
                                 Lewistown, MT 59457.
McCone County.................  1101 C Avenue, Circle,  (406) 485-2350
                                 MT 59215.
Petroleum County..............  205 S. Broadway,        (406) 429-2451
                                 Winnett, MT 59087.
Phillips County...............  10 S. 4th Street E.,    (406) 542-2407
                                 Malta, MT 59538.
Montana State University-       1500 University Drive,  (406) 657-2011
 Billings.                       Billings, MT 59101.
Montana State University-       Roland R. Renne         (406) 994-3171
 Bozeman.                        Library, Centennial
                                 Mall, Bozeman, MT
Montana State University-Havre  Northern Vande Bogart   (406) 265-3706
                                 Library, Cowan Drive,
                                 Havre, MT 59501.
University of Montana.........  Mansfield Library, 32   (406) 243-6860
                                 Campus Drive,
                                 Missoula, MT 59812.
Colorado State University.....  Morgan Library, 501     (970) 491-1841
                                 University Avenue,
                                 Fort Collins, CO

Next Steps

    We will document the final decision in a record of decision, which 
will be published in the Federal Register no sooner than 30 days after 
publishing this notice.

    Dated: May 1, 2012.
Matt Hogan,
Acting, Deputy Regional Director, Mountain-Prairie Region, U.S. Fish 
and Wildlife Service.
[FR Doc. 2012-10886 Filed 5-4-12; 8:45 am]