[Federal Register: July 27, 2000 (Volume 65, Number 145)]
[Page 46172-46175]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]



Fish and Wildlife Service

Notice of Intent To Prepare a Supplement to a Final Environmental 
Impact Statement Pertaining to the Translocation of Southern Sea Otters

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Notice of intent (NOI) to prepare a supplement to a final 
environmental impact statement.


SUMMARY: Pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act, 40 CFR 
1502.9(c)(1)(ii) this NOI advises the public that we, the U.S. Fish and 
Wildlife Service (Service), intend to prepare a draft and final 
Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (Supplement) (EIS) 
pertaining to the translocation of southern sea otters.
    From 1984 through May of 1987, we drafted and finalized an EIS 
which analyzed the impacts of establishing a program to translocate 
southern sea otters from their then current range along the central 
coast of California to areas of northern California, southern Oregon, 
or San Nicolas Island off the coast of southern California. We 
implemented the translocation program and moved southern sea otters 
from the coast of central California to San Nicolas Island starting in 
August 1987 and ending in March 1990. As part of the translocation 
program, up until 1993, we removed or attempted to remove otters 
(containment) from a special management zone established under the 
translocation program. The special management zone is located off the 
coast of southern California, from Point Conception south to Mexico, 
and includes the channel islands, exclusive of San Nicolas Island and 
the surrounding translocation zone. The purpose of this containment 
component of the translocation program was to prevent, to the maximum 
extent feasible, conflict between sea otters and other fishery 
resources within the management zone and to facilitate the management 
of sea otters at San Nicolas Island. Over the past several years, 
significant new circumstances have arisen that bear on the 
translocation program and, in particular, on the containment component 
of the program. In addition, we have acquired significant new 
information relevant to environmental concerns for southern sea otters.
    In response to these significant new circumstances and new 
information, we are reevaluating the present southern sea otter 
translocation program and propose to modify the program consistent with 
the recovery needs of the species. This NOI serves to describe several 
alternative modifications to the program as well as termination of the 
program, invites public participation in the scoping process for 
preparing the EIS, and identifies the Fish and Wildlife Service 
official to whom questions and comments concerning the proposed action 
may be directed. Throughout the scoping process, the public, 
environmental groups, industries, Federal and State agencies, local 
governments, and other interested parties will have the opportunity to 
assist us in determining the scope of the Draft Supplement, significant 
issues that should be addressed, and alternatives to be considered.

DATE: Written comments regarding scoping for the Draft Supplement 
should be received by September 29, 2000. See SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION 
section for meeting dates.

ADDRESSES: Address all comments concerning this notice to U.S. Fish and 
Wildlife Service, Ventura Field Office, Attention Mr. Greg Sanders, 
2493 Portola Road, Suite B, Ventura, California, 93003-7726, 
(telephone: 805/644-1766; facsimile: 805/644-3958). Submit electronic 
comments to fw1ottereis@r1.fws.gov. See SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION 
section for file formats and other information about electronic filing.

Wildlife Service, at the above Ventura address.



    In 1977, we listed the southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) 
as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) after 
consideration of its small population size, greatly reduced range, and 
the potential risk from oil spills. We approved a recovery plan for the 
species in 1982. At the time the recovery plan was being developed, 
available information suggested the sea otter population was not 
growing, and there was concern the population was in decline. In 
response, we determined that translocating sea otters was an effective 
and reasonable recovery action, although there was some concern that a 
translocated sea otter population could impact shellfish fisheries that 
had developed in areas formerly occupied by sea otters. Goals cited in 
the recovery plan included: minimizing risk from potential oil spills; 
establishing at least one additional breeding colony outside the then 
current sea otter range; and compiling and evaluating information on 
historic distribution and abundance, available but unoccupied habitat, 
and potential fishery conflicts to help identify optimum distribution, 
abundance, and productivity. The idea of translocation was not new as 
several prior efforts to reestablish sea otter populations via 
translocation had been successful. We developed a southern sea otter 
translocation plan in 1986.
    In concept, the purpose of translocation was to establish sea 
otters in one or more areas outside the then current range to minimize 
the possibility of a single natural or human-caused catastrophe, such 
as an oil spill, adversely affecting a significant portion of the 
population. Ultimately, it was anticipated that translocation would 
result in a larger population size and a more continuous distribution 
of animals throughout the southern sea otter's former historic range. 
Translocation was viewed as important to achieving recovery, and for 
identifying the optimal sustainable population (OSP) level for the 
southern sea otter as required under the Marine Mammal Protection Act 
    Translocation of a listed species is generally authorized under the 
Endangered Species Act, and under certain specific circumstances, 
translocation of a listed species to establish experimental populations 
is authorized under section 10(j) of the ESA. The sea otter, however, 
is protected by both the ESA and the MMPA, and prior to the amendments 
of 1988, there were no similar translocation provisions under the

[[Page 46173]]

MMPA. For sea otters, this dilemma was resolved in 1986 with the 
passage of Public Law (PL) 99-625 providing for the translocation of 
southern sea otters.
    When it was signed into law in 1986, PL 99-625 specifically 
authorized, and established guidelines for, the translocation of 
southern sea otters. Special regulations implementing the law at 50 CFR 
17.84(d) provide details of the translocation plan, including five 
criteria for determining whether the translocation program is a 
failure. Under the regulations, prior to declaring the translocation a 
failure, we must conduct a full evaluation of the program and the 
probable causes of failure, and consult with both the Marine Mammal 
Commission and the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG). If 
the causes for program failure can be determined, and legal and 
reasonable remedial measures can be identified and implemented to 
eliminate the causes of failure, the regulations state that 
consideration will be given to continuing to maintain the translocated 
sea otter population. If the causes of the failure cannot be identified 
and remedied, we will publish the results of the failure evaluation in 
the Federal Register, amend the regulations to terminate the 
translocation program, and remove all otters from San Nicolas Island 
and the management zone.
    In August 1987, the Service and CDFG agreed to a Memorandum of 
Understanding providing for cooperative research and management efforts 
to promote recovery of southern sea otters. The agreement also included 
provisions to minimize conflicts with existing shellfish fisheries and 
other marine resources through containment of sea otters. In 1997, CDFG 
notified us that they would no longer be able to assist with 
containment of sea otters in the management zone.
    A primary purpose of the translocation program was to establish a 
colony of sea otters at a location outside the then existing parent 
range to enhance recovery and provide protection against the 
possibility of a natural or human-caused event, such as an oil spill, 
adversely affecting a significant portion of the sea otter population. 
Contrary to expectations and to the primary recovery objective of the 
sea otter management program, San Nicolas Island has not produced a 
second, independent colony of sea otters sufficiently removed from the 
parent population so as to be shielded from the effects of a major oil 
spill or other catastrophic incident. As demonstrated by the size of 
the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the impacts of a major oil tanker 
accident could encompass both the parent range of the sea otter and the 
translocation zone surrounding San Nicolas Island. In addition, the 
experimental population at San Nicolas Island has not grown into an 
established independent colony, as defined by the translocation 
program, despite the original translocation of 140 otters. The 
translocation program states that a minimum number of 150 otters at San 
Nicolas Island is necessary to be considered an established population 
that would be available to repopulate areas in the event of a major 
loss of the parent population from an oil spill or other catastrophic 
event. Since the translocation of otters to San Nicolas Island, the 
island population has never exceeded 23 otters. Given its very small 
size, the experimental population is not contributing significantly to 
recovery of the species and is not a viable source for repopulating the 
parent population in the event of a major oil spill or similar 
incident. In addition, the small size of the experimental population 
prevents many of the secondary research objectives of the translocation 
plan from being met.

Proposed Action

    We propose to reevaluate the present southern sea otter 
translocation program as described in the Final EIS for Translocation 
of Southern Sea Otters, Appendix B, May 1987, and modify the program 
consistent with the recovery needs of the species. The purpose of this 
action is to assess the impacts of alternatives and reduce the southern 
sea otter's vulnerability to extinction.

New Information and Changed Circumstances

    The Supplement will review and assess new information and changed 
circumstances pertaining to translocation of the southern sea otter. 
New information and changed circumstances include but are not limited 

(1) The January 2000 Draft Revised Recovery Plan

    The number of southern sea otters counted during spring surveys has 
declined over four of the past 5 years and the population continues to 
be vulnerable to extinction. The Recovery Team now recommends against 
additional translocations to accomplish the objective of increasing the 
range and number of southern sea otters in California. There is reason 
to believe that range expansion of sea otters will occur more rapidly 
if the existing population is allowed to passively recover than it 
would under a recovery program that includes translocating sea otters.

(2) Results of the Translocation Program on Sea Otters and Sea Otter 
Population Recovery

    The translocation of sea otters to San Nicolas Island has been much 
less successful than expected. After nearly 13 years of experience with 
the sea otter translocation program, the San Nicolas Island colony 
population remains very small (fewer than 21 independent animals). Even 
if the translocation program is allowed to continue and it eventually 
succeeds, it will be many more years before the sea otter population at 
the island reaches the population target of 150 animals and will be 
able to serve the recovery objectives identified in the translocation 

(3) Mass Movement of Sea Otters

    A large number of sea otters from the parent population temporarily 
moved into the northern end of the management zone in 1998 and 
reappeared in 1999 and 2000. The animals were not translocated to the 
area, and this movement appears to represent a natural extension of 
their range.

(4) Results of Containment Efforts and Sea Otter Population Recovery

    Capturing southern sea otters through non-lethal means, as required 
by PL 99-625, has proven in most cases to be more difficult than we 
anticipated when developing the translocation program. From 1987 to 
1993, we responded to sightings of southern sea otters in the 
management zone. However, we were often unable to find reported 
individuals. When otters were detected, efforts to capture even a few 
otters were time consuming and often unsuccessful. In addition, several 
otters died shortly after capture and release into the parent 
population, leading to concerns that containment may ultimately result 
in the death of some otters removed from the management zone. The 
containment program anticipated that the Fish and Wildlife Service and 
the CDFG would jointly manage an effort to locate and remove sea otters 
in the management zone. The recent mass movements of sea otters from 
the parent range to the management zone renders containment even more 
difficult because CDFG is no longer able to participate in containment 

[[Page 46174]]

(5) Sea Otter Socialization and Interactions With Introduced 

    We have concluded, in a recent biological opinion evaluating the 
effects of sea otter containment under the translocation plan, that the 
movement of large numbers of southern sea otters from the management 
zone into the parent range would likely cause substantial disruption of 
the latter's social structure and increased pressure on food resources 
and, consequently, result in jeopardy to the listed species. Such 
impacts could include increased mortality and population instability, 
which would likely continue, if not accelerate, the recent decline in 
the parent population.

(6) Parent Population Decline

    In 4 of the past 5 years (1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999) the total 
number of southern sea otters counted during spring population surveys 
has progressively declined. In spring 1995, the number of sea otters 
was the highest number recorded to date; a total of 2,377 animals was 
counted. In the spring of 1996, the number fell to 2,278. By the spring 
of 1997, it was down to 2,229, in spring 1998 a total of 2,114 animals 
were counted, and the 1999 spring count observed only 2,090 sea otters. 
This represents a decline of just under 12 percent between 1995 and 
1999. The spring 2000 survey counted a total of 2,317 otters (2,053 
independents plus 264 pups). This represents nearly an 11 percent 
increase since 1999, but is still below the highest count of 2,377 
obtained in the spring 1995 survey. The most recent spring survey 
results are encouraging; however, year to year variation in the counts 
is expected. For this reason the southern sea otter recovery team has 
recommended the use of a 3-year running average to incorporate the 
existing degree of uncertainty in assessing population counts. The 
spring 2000 count represents an increase in both the annual counts and 
the 3-year running average and may indicate a reversal in the downward 
trend observed since 1995. However, the information from the spring 
2000 is not sufficient evidence that the recent decline in the southern 
sea otter population is reversed. Survey data from future years will be 
needed to determine if the population counts continue to increase and 
demonstrate an upward trend.


    The Supplement will evaluate new information and changed 
circumstances in order to determine the environmental impact 
(beneficial or adverse) which would result from a number of possible 
sea otter management alternatives, as compared to the current Federal 
Action (implementation of a translocation program). The Supplement will 
compare alternative scenarios against the current management program 
(No Action Alternative). Some of these alternatives may require new 
    Alternatives may include but are not limited to the following:

(1) The Action Alternative

    This alternative would continue the translocation program without 
additional evaluation of failure or modification of the management 
zone. Removal of sea otters from the management zone would resume if 
changed circumstances or new information indicated that containment 
would not result in jeopardy to the listed species.

(2) Complete the Evaluation of Failure Criteria for the Translocation 
Program and Proceed With Actions Identified in the Translocation Plan 
and Implementing Regulations

    According to the regulations implementing PL 99-625 at 50 CFR 
17.84(d)(8), the translocation program would generally be considered to 
have failed if one or more of five criteria are met. We would complete 
our evaluation and assessment of the translocation program using these 
criteria. If the translocation program were determined to be a failure 
after the evaluation, we would remove the experimental population of 
sea otters from San Nicolas Island, provided that we conclude that 
removal of the island population and its return to the parent 
population could be accomplished without jeopardizing the listed 
species. Similarly, if circumstances changed or new information 
indicated that containment of sea otters in the management zone would 
not result in jeopardy to the listed species, we would make reasonable 
efforts to remove all sea otters remaining in the management zone and 
return them to the parent population. The management zone would then be 

(3) Complete the Evaluation of Failure Criteria for the Translocation 
Program But Do Not Remove Sea Otters From San Nicolas Island or the 
Management Zone

    We would complete the evaluation and assessment of the 
translocation program using the failure criteria. If determined to be a 
failure after the evaluation, we would initiate a proposed rulemaking 
to change the existing regulations at 50 CFR 17.84(d)(8) to eliminate 
the management zone and allow sea otters to remain at San Nicolas 
Island and in the management zone.

(4) Modify the Boundaries of the Management Zone

    We would initiate a proposed rulemaking to change the existing 
regulations at 50 CFR 17.84(d)(8) to re-delineate boundaries of the 
management zone. Containment of sea otters would resume within the new 
boundaries of the management zone if changed circumstances or new 
information indicated that containment would not result in jeopardy to 
the listed species.

(5) Modify Lobster, Crab, and Live Fin-Fish Trapping at San Nicolas 
Island To Avoid any Reasonable Possibility of Take of Sea Otters in 

    We would pursue a change in State regulations to address gear 
modifications and/or fishing restrictions at San Nicolas Island. 
Containment of sea otters within the management zone would resume if 
changed circumstances or new information indicated that containment 
would not result in jeopardy to the listed species.

Public Comments Solicited

    The environmental review of the proposed action will be conducted 
in accordance with the requirements of the National Environmental 
Policy Act of 1969, as amended (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.), National 
Environmental Policy Act Regulations at 40 CFR 1500-1508, other 
appropriate Federal laws and regulations, and policies and procedures 
of the Fish and Wildlife Service for compliance with those regulations. 
This notice is being furnished in accordance with section 1501.7 of the 
National Environmental Policy Act, to obtain suggestions and 
information from other agencies and the public on the scope of issues 
and alternatives to be addressed in the Supplement. We solicit comments 
and participation in this scoping process. Questions concerning the 
Draft Supplement and written scoping comments should be directed to 
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ventura Field Office, Attention Mr. 
Greg Sanders, 2493 Portola Road, Suite B, Ventura, California 93003-
7726, (telephone: 805/644-1766; facsimile: 805/644-3958). Written 
comments regarding scoping for the Draft Supplement should be received 
by September 29, 2000, at the address above. You may also send comments 
by electronic mail (e-mail) to fw1ottereis@r1.fws.gov. Please submit 
comments in ASCII file format and

[[Page 46175]]

avoid the use of special characters and encryption. If you do not 
receive a confirmation from the system that your e-mail message has 
been received, contact us directly by calling our Ventura Fish and 
Wildlife Office at phone number 805/644-1766.


    Public scoping meetings will be held on the following dates:
    1. August 15, 2000, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., Santa 
Barbara, CA at the Radisson Hotel.
    2. August 17, 2000, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., 
Monterey, CA at the Monterey Conference Center.
    Registration will begin 1 hour prior to each meeting session. There 
will be a presentation at the beginning of the public scoping meetings 
that will address background on the southern sea otter translocation 
program and significant new circumstances and information relevant to 
the status of the southern sea otter and the effects of the 
translocation program, including containment, on the southern sea 
otter. Submission of written and oral comments will be accepted at the 
scoping meetings.
    The Draft Supplement is scheduled to be available to the public in 
the summer of 2001.

    Dated: July 19, 2000.
John Engbring,
Acting Manager, California/Nevada Operations Office, Region 1, U.S. 
Fish and Wildlife Service.
[FR Doc. 00-18704 Filed 7-26-00; 8:45 am]