[Federal Register: September 7, 2006 (Volume 71, Number 173)]
[Page 52816-52818]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]



Fish and Wildlife Service

Draft Template Safe Harbor Agreement, Draft Environmental 
Assessment, and Receipt of Applications for Enhancement of Survival 

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Notice of availability and receipt of applications; request for 


SUMMARY: As part of ongoing recovery efforts for the endangered 
Columbia Basin distinct population segment of the pygmy rabbit 
(Brachylagus idahoensis), this notice advises the public that the U.S. 
Fish and Wildlife Service (Service or we), in cooperation with the 
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), is making available 
for public review and comment a draft Template Safe Harbor Agreement 
(Agreement). The proposed Agreement addresses incidental take of 
Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits (CBPR) that could result from activities 
associated with ranching, farming, recreation, residential upkeep, 
conservation programs, and shrub steppe maintenance, restoration, and 
enhancement on an undeterminable number of non-Federal properties. The 
area covered by the proposed Agreement (Covered Area) includes portions 
of 6 counties in central Washington and totals approximately 2,650,000 
acres. However, eligible properties that occur within the Covered Area 
and are most likely to be enrolled under the Agreement would primarily 
include those that have existing shrub steppe habitat and/or soil 
conditions that may be capable of supporting the species, either 
currently or in the foreseeable future. These lands, as well as 
adjacent properties that may receive intermittent use by CBPRs, such as 
for exploratory behavior or dispersal between suitable habitats, total 
approximately 750,000 acres. Implementation of the proposed Agreement 
would provide the opportunity for interested non-Federal and non-WDFW 
landowners and managers to voluntarily enroll their lands under the 
Agreement and receive an enhancement of survival permit pursuant to 
section 10(a)(1)(A) of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended 
(ESA). In exchange for the incidental take authority that would be 
provided by issuance of permits, participants who enroll their lands 
under this Agreement would implement conservation measures that would 
be expected to provide a net conservation benefit to the CBPR. The 
duration of the proposed Agreement is 20 years. The duration of 
associated permits could be for shorter periods, but would not exceed 
the duration of the Agreement. More detailed descriptions of the 
background biological information, Covered Area, proposed covered 
activities, conservation measures, and expected net conservation 
benefits are provided in the draft Agreement and in the SUPPLEMENTARY 
INFORMATION section below.
    This also announces the receipt and availability for public review 
and comment three applications for incidental take permits for the 
enhancement of survival for the CBPR in conjunction with the Agreement. 
These applications have been received from The Nature Conservancy, Mr. 
Dave Billingsley and Mr. Peter Lancaster (Applicants). Issuance of 
these permits would authorize incidental take of CBPRs above the 
existing baseline conditions of enrolled properties that

[[Page 52817]]

may result from the Applicants' proposed activities. Additional 
applications are expected in the near future from other non-Federal and 
non-WDFW landowners and managers who propose to enroll their lands 
under the Agreement. Future applications received by the Service from 
other prospective participants to the Agreement will be provided for 
public review in future notices.
    In accordance with Service responsibilities pursuant to the 
National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), this notice also announces 
the availability, for public review, of a draft Environmental 
Assessment (EA) developed in conjunction with the proposed Agreement.
    We request comments from the public on the proposed Agreement, 
current permit applications, and the draft EA, all of which are 
available for public review and comment. To review the documents, see 
``Availability of Documents'' in the SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION section 

DATES: All comments from interested parties must be received on or 
before October 10, 2006.

ADDRESSES: Written comments concerning this notice should be addressed 
to Susan Martin, Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Upper 
Columbia Fish and Wildlife Office, 11103 East Montgomery Drive, 
Spokane, Washington 99206. You may also send comments by facsimile at 
(509) 891-6748, or by electronic mail at fw1cbprabbit@fws.gov.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Chris Warren at (509) 893-8020, or 
Michelle Eames at (509) 893-8010.


Availability of Documents

    Copies of the draft documents and permit applications are available 
for public inspection, by appointment, during normal business hours at 
the Upper Columbia Fish and Wildlife Office (see ADDRESSES), or they 
may be viewed on the internet at the following address: http://www.fws.gov/easternwashington/.
 You may also request copies of the 

documents by contacting the Service's Upper Columbia Fish and Wildlife 
Office [see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT]. The Service is furnishing 
this notice to provide the public, other State and Federal agencies, 
and tribes an opportunity to review and comment on these documents. All 
comments received will become part of the public record. If you wish us 
to withhold your name and/or address, you must state this prominently 
at the beginning of your comment. All comments received from 
organizations, businesses, or individuals representing organizations or 
businesses, are available for public inspection in their entirety.


    The pygmy rabbit is the smallest rabbit species, and one of only 
two rabbit species that digs its own burrows, in North America. They 
are typically found in shrub-steppe habitats that include tall, dense 
stands of sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) and that occur in relatively deep, 
loose soils suitable for the species' burrowing behavior. Pygmy rabbits 
are highly dependent on sagebrush for food, particularly during the 
winter, and, along with their burrows, for shelter and escape 
throughout the year.
    The historic distribution of the pygmy rabbit included portions of 
Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, and 
Washington. The pygmy rabbit has been present within the Columbia 
Basin, a geographic area that extends from northern Oregon through 
eastern Washington, for over 100,000 years. This population segment, 
referred to as the CBPR and which is the subject of the Agreement, 
historically occurred only in central Washington and is believed to 
have been disjunct from the remainder of the species' range for at 
least 10,000 years. The distribution and abundance of the CBPR has 
declined dramatically since the mid-1990s. Surveys of the last known 
occupied site, located in southern Douglas County, have not detected 
any animals since mid-2004, indicating that the population may now be 
extirpated from the wild.
    In 2001, WDFW captured as many of the remaining CBPRs as possible 
from the last known subpopulation and began a captive breeding program. 
The Service emergency-listed the CBPR under the ESA in 2001, and fully 
listed it as endangered in 2003. Major past threats to the CBPR include 
the loss and fragmentation of suitable shrub-steppe habitats. Major 
current threats are associated with the extremely small size of the 
remaining population, which has made it vulnerable to loss of genetic 
diversity and inbreeding depression. Inbreeding depression was 
evidenced in the captive population by the poor reproductive 
performance, declining genetic diversity, increased susceptibility to 
disease, and, possibly, skeletal abnormalities in the purebred animals. 
Intercrossing CBPRs with pygmy rabbits of the same taxonomic 
classification from Idaho helped to restore the genetic diversity and 
reduce the effects of inbreeding depression in the captive population. 
The inclusion of intercrossed animals with some minor level of non-
Columbia Basin ancestry is considered necessary to achieve Federal 
recovery objectives for the CBPR in the wild.
    WDFW, in conjunction with the Service, proposes to reintroduce 
captive CBPRs into suitable habitats at two recovery emphasis areas: 
one in southern Douglas County; and one in northern Grant County, 
Washington. The Service and WDFW anticipate that, as a likely result of 
planned reintroduction efforts, CBPRs may become established on non-
Federal and/or non-WDFW properties, which prompted development of the 
proposed Agreement.
    The primary objective of the Agreement is to facilitate 
collaboration between the Service, WDFW, and prospective participants 
to voluntarily implement conservation measures to benefit the CBPR. An 
additional objective of the Agreement is to provide incidental take 
coverage to participants through issuance of enhancement of survival 
permits, which will relieve them of additional section 9 liability 
under the ESA if implementation of the conservation measures results in 
increased numbers or distribution of CBPRs on their enrolled 
    The proposed Agreement is a ``template'' in that it establishes 
general guidelines and identifies minimum management responsibilities 
for non-Federal/non-WDFW landowners and managers to participate in the 
Agreement. In addition, the proposed Agreement documents background 
biological information on the CBPR, ongoing conservation actions and 
Federal recovery objectives for the species, expected net conservation 
benefits, and the types of land use activities and eligible properties 
that may be covered by the Agreement. If the Agreement is signed by the 
Service and WDFW following public review and comment, the process to 
consider subsequent permit applications in the future will be 
significantly streamlined as permit applicants will be able to 
reference the approved Agreement. NEPA compliance also may be tiered. 
By streamlining the process and minimizing the time it requires to 
process additional ESA section 10(a)(1)(A) permit applications 
consistent with the Agreement, the Service and WDFW anticipate that 
more private landowners will be likely to participate and implement 
proactive conservation measures, which will enhance State and Federal 
recovery efforts for the CBPR.

[[Page 52818]]

    The proposed Agreement clarifies management responsibilities and 
expectations of the Service, WDFW, and prospective participants. When 
signed, the Agreement may serve as the basis for additional enhancement 
of survival permit applications. To be considered for a permit, each 
participant will need to complete and submit to the Service a Federal 
Fish and Wildlife Permit Application Form. An issued permit would 
authorize incidental take of CBPRs that are above the baseline 
conditions of their enrolled property.
    In addition to submitting a Permit application, prospective 
participants would also need to develop a Site Plan, in cooperation 
with the Service, that identifies the specific properties to be 
enrolled and documents the baseline conditions, existing and proposed 
future land-use activities, and agreed-upon conservation measures that 
would be expected to provide a net conservation benefit for the CBPR on 
the enrolled properties. Each prospective participant and the Service 
would need to sign the completed Site Plan, which will remain within 
the scope of, and tiered to, the proposed Agreement.
    We anticipate that the proposed Agreement would result in the 
following benefits to the CBPR: (1) Appropriate habitats will be 
maintained on enrolled properties and be available for use by CBPRs 
released at the recovery emphasis areas; (2) habitats on enrolled 
properties will facilitate dispersal of newly released CBPRs and 
enhance connectivity of recovery emphasis areas; (3) new subpopulations 
of CBPRs may form on enrolled properties through natural population 
expansion; (4) additional wild CBPRs may be located on properties being 
considered for enrollment and be secured for captive breeding and/or 
translocation efforts, which will improve the overall recovery outlook 
for the species; (5) monitoring and future collection of biological 
information concerning the CBPR (e.g., dispersal, survival, 
productivity) will be improved through cooperative management efforts 
on enrolled properties; (6) research and adaptive management for the 
CBPR can be made more comprehensive if implemented at a broader scale 
through facilitated access to enrolled properties; and (7) successful 
implementation of cooperative, voluntary conservation measures will 
increase public awareness and support for CBPR recovery efforts.
    This notice is provided pursuant to section 10(c) of the ESA and 
NEPA regulations (40 CFR 1506.6). The Service will evaluate the permit 
applications, associated documents, and comments submitted thereon to 
determine whether the proposed Agreement and permit applications meet 
the requirements of NEPA regulations and section 10(a) of the ESA. If 
it is determined that the requirements are met, the Agreement will be 
finalized and signed and these permits will be issued to the Applicants 
for incidental take of the covered species. The final NEPA and permit 
determinations will not be completed until after the end of the 30-day 
comment period, and will fully consider all public comments received 
during the comment period.

    Dated: August 14, 2006.
Carolyn A. Bohan,
Acting Deputy Regional Director, Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 1, 
Portland, Oregon.

[FR Doc. E6-14773 Filed 9-6-06; 8:45 am]