[Federal Register: January 17, 2001 (Volume 66, Number 11)]
[Page 4036-4038]
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 Gopher Tortoises by the Board of Water and 
Sewer Commissioners of the City of Mobile, Mobile County, Alabama

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Notice.


    The Board of Water and Sewer Commissioners of the City of Mobile 
(``Board'' or ``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 99 years. The proposed taking is incidental to the establishment 
of a conservation bank to mitigate take of up to 128 tortoises for 
residential, commercial and other development by private property 
owners throughout Mobile County. Under the proposed plan, the Board 
will sell mitigation credits to private landowners seeking incidental 
take of occupied gopher tortoise habitat in Mobile County. The private 
landowners will pay a mutually agreeable mitigation fee to the Board 
and allow for the relocation of the affected tortoises to the 
conservation bank. For each tortoise taken, private landowners will be 
required to cover costs associated with protecting, managing, and 
monitoring 1.5 acres of habitat at the conservation bank.
    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 habitat conservation plan (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 60 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 TE035340-0 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

[[Page 4037]]

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 

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 March 19, 2001.

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, P. O. Drawer 1190, Daphne, Alabama 36526. Written 
data or comments concerning the application, or HCP should be submitted 
to the Regional Office. Please reference permit number TE035340-0 in 
requests of the documents discussed herein.

Coordinator, (see ADDRESSES above), telephone: 404/679-7313, facsimile: 
404/679-7081; or Ms. Barbara Allen, Fish and Wildlife Biologist, Daphne 
Field Office, Alabama (see ADDRESSES above), telephone: 334/441-5181.

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.
    In Mobile County, Alabama, development and fragmentation of 
tortoise habitat are a significant threat to the remaining tortoise 
population of the project area. The Applicant proposes to establish a 
conservation bank on land owned by the Board to benefit the federally 
threatened gopher tortoise. This HCP provides a mechanism to address 
development threats to the tortoise, to provide private landowners in 
Mobile County with viable gopher tortoise mitigation alternatives, and 
to provide the Board with a financial incentive to manage its lands for 
the benefit of this species.
    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.
    Under this HCP, the Board is applying for a 10(a)(1)(B) permit 
which would then be extended to private landowners who have tortoises 
on their property through a Certificate of Inclusion. Those landowners 
would purchase mitigation credit(s) from the Board after review and 
approval by the Service. After allowing for the relocation of affected 
tortoises onto Board property, they would have authorization to develop 
their property. The 222-acre conservation bank site occurs on lands 
(over 7,000 acres in total) owned by the Board that are permanently 
protected from development and that surround Big Creek Land in western 
Mobile County. A significant proportion of the site contains mature 
longleaf pine forest on well-drained, sandy soils. The site is in need 
of management activities that restore more open, longleaf-pine canopy 
conditions, reduce hardwood encroachment, reduce invasive exotic 
species, and restore more natural fire regimes. In addition, the 
resident tortoise population is significantly depleted, thus requiring 
translocation of tortoises to the site in order to establish a viable 
population. Should conservation banking prove to be a viable strategy 
for the Board and conservation of the tortoise, the Board is open to 
considering devoting more of the remaining 7,000 acres to serve as a 
gopher tortoise conservation bank.
    The EA considers the environmental consequences of 5 alternatives, 
including the proposed action and no-action alternatives. The proposed 
action alternative is the issuance of a permit under section 10(a) of 
the Act that would authorize incidental take of up to 128 gopher 
tortoises from private landowners who would be required to obtain a 
certificate of inclusion from the Board. The proposed action would 
require the Applicant to implement their Habitat Conservation Plan 
which requires that for each tortoise taken, 1.5 acres of longleaf pine 
habitat at the conservation bank is restored, protected, and managed 
for a period of 99 years. Under the no-action alternative, the 
Incidental Take Permit would not be issued. There will be no concerted 
effort to restore, enhance, or maintain longleaf pine forest at the 
conservation bank owned by the Board. There is no legal obligation 
under the ESA for private property owners to actively manage their 
property for the benefit of the gopher tortoise. In the absence of this 
proposed ITP, much of the occupied habitat in Mobile County will be 
lost to benign neglect as the canopy becomes too dense to support 
gopher tortoises. The third alternative is to offer financial 
incentives to protect existing gopher tortoise habitat on private 
lands. This would be a useful approach for those landowners with 
sizeable tracts of fire-maintained longleaf pine that contain occupied 
habitat or habitat that is readily restorable. For this reason, in 
part, the Service maintaines the ability to deny Certificates of 
Inclusion under this HCP when the agency deems that large tracts of 
occupied, suitable gopher tortoise habitat in Mobile County can and 
should be addressed through other appropriate means. The fourth 
alternative is to require on-site mitigation by issuing individual HCPs 
to landowners in Mobile county, requiring each to mitigate such take on 
the property where take occurs.
    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

[[Page 4038]]

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: January 9, 2001.
Sam D. Hamilton,
Regional Director.
[FR Doc. 01-1303 Filed 1-16-01; 8:45 am]