[Federal Register: May 23, 2008 (Volume 73, Number 101)]
[Page 30139-30143]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]



Fish and Wildlife Service

[FWS-R4-R-2008-N0050; 40136-1265-0000-S3]

Lower Florida Keys Refuges, Monroe County, FL

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Notice of availability; draft comprehensive conservation plan 
and environmental assessment; request for comments.


SUMMARY: We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), announce the 
availability of a draft comprehensive conservation plan and 
environmental assessment (Draft CCP/EA) for the Lower Florida Keys 
Refuges for public review and comment. This DRAFT CCP/EA covers 
National Key Deer Refuge, Key West National Wildlife Refuge, and Great 
White Heron National Wildlife Refuge. In this Draft CCP/EA, we describe 
the alternative we propose to use to manage these refuges for the 15 
years following approval of the Final CCP.

[[Page 30140]]

DATES: To ensure consideration, we must receive your written comments 
by June 23, 2008. Two meetings will be held to present the Draft CCP/EA 
to the public. Mailings, newspaper articles and posters will inform the 
public of the dates, times, and locations of the meetings.

ADDRESSES: Requests for copies of the Draft CCP/EA should be addressed 
to: Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Attn: Anne Morkill, 
Refuge Manager, 28950 Watson Boulevard, Big Pine Key, FL 33043; or, you 
may submit comments by e-mail to Mary Morris, Natural Resource Planner, 
at mary_morris@fws.gov. A copy of the Draft CCP/EA is available on 
compact diskette or hard copy.
    You may view or obtain copies of the Draft CCP/EA by visiting the 
National Key Deer Refuge's visitor center located in the Big Pine 
Shopping Plaza, 175 Key Deer Boulevard, Big Pine Key, FL. Copies may 
also be viewed at the following Monroe County Public Libraries: Big 
Pine Key Branch, 213 Key Deer Boulevard, Big Pine Key, FL; Marathon 
Branch, 3251 Overseas Highway, Marathon, FL; and at the Key West 
Branch, 700 Fleming Street, Key West, FL.
    You may also access or download copies of the Draft CCP/EA at the 
following Web site address: http://southeast.fws.gov/planning.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Mary Morris, Natural Resources 
Planner, at 850-567-6202; or Anne Morkill, Refuge Manager, at 305-872-



    With this notice, we continue the CCP process for the Lower Keys 
National Wildlife Refuges. We started the process through a notice in 
the Federal Register on May 9, 2003 (68 FR 25058).
    The Lower Florida Keys Refuges include three wildlife refuges--Key 
West and Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuges and National Key 
Deer Refuge, all in Monroe County, Florida.

Key West National Wildlife Refuge

    Key West National Wildlife Refuge, west of Key West, Florida, and 
accessible only by boat or plane, consists of the Marquesas Keys and 13 
other keys distributed across more than 375 square miles of open water. 
Key West Refuge is among the first refuges established in the United 
States. President Roosevelt created the refuge in 1908 as a preserve 
and breeding ground for colonial nesting birds and other wildlife. The 
refuge encompasses 208,308 acres of land and water with only one 
percent (2,019 acres) being land. Most islands are dominated by 
mangrove plant communities. Exceptions are the hardwood hammock in the 
Marquesas Keys, and the beaches and dunes there and on Boca Grande and 
Woman Keys. All islands lack fresh water and native, terrestrial 
mammals are absent.
    The refuge provides habitat and protection for federally listed 
species, including piping plovers and roseate terns. The refuge harbors 
the largest wintering population of piping plovers and the largest 
colony of white-crowned pigeons in the Florida Keys. It is a haven for 
over 250 species of birds, including ten wading bird species that nest 
on the refuge. Other notable imperiled species include sea turtles. 
More loggerhead and green sea turtle nests are found each year on this 
refuge than in any area of the Florida Keys except the Dry Tortugas. 
Waters within the refuge's administrative boundaries are important 
developmental habitat for these sea turtle species, as well as 
hawksbills and Kemp's ridley sea turtles.
    In 1975, Public Law 93-632 designated all islands on Key West 
Refuge, except Ballast Key, which is privately owned, as a part of the 
National Wilderness Preservation System. These islands total 2,109 

Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge

    Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1938, 
by Executive Order 7993 signed by President Roosevelt, as a haven for 
great white herons, migratory birds, and other wildlife. The refuge 
encompasses 117,683 acres of land and water with 6,500 acres of land, 
the latter of which 1,900 were designated Wilderness in 1975, also 
under Public Law 93-632. The islands account for approximately 7,600 
acres and are primarily mangroves. Some of the larger islands contain 
pine rockland and tropical hardwood hammock habitats. This vast area, 
known locally as the ``backcountry,'' provides critical nesting, 
feeding, and resting areas for more than 250 species of birds. The 
Service co-manages the open water and submerged lands owned by the 
State of Florida through a Management Agreement.
    Great white herons are a white color-phase of great blue herons. In 
the United States, nesting is restricted to extreme south Florida, 
including the Florida Keys. The refuge was created to protect great 
white herons from extinction since the population was decimated by the 
demand for feathered hats. Protection of great white herons was 
successful, and these magnificent birds can be observed feeding on 
tidal flats throughout the refuge. The refuge islands are also used for 
nesting by ten wading bird species, including the reddish egret, and by 
many neotropical migratory bird species.
    A few green and loggerhead sea turtles nest on Sawyer Key. These 
species, as well as hawksbill and possibly Kemp's ridley sea turtles, 
forage in State waters within refuge boundaries.

National Key Deer Refuge

    National Key Deer Refuge was established on August 22, 1957, to 
protect and preserve Key deer and other wildlife resources. It 
comprises about 8,983 acres of land on several islands within the 
approved acquisition boundary, as well as additional parcels located 
outside the boundary administered by the refuge. These lands host 
diverse habitats, most notably globally endangered tropical hardwood 
hammocks and pine rocklands. The refuge provides habitat for hundreds 
of endemic and migratory species, including 21 federally listed 
species, such as the Key deer, Lower Keys marsh rabbit, and silver rice 
rat. It contains a variety of plants endemic to the Florida Keys.
    The refuge is an important stopping point for thousands of 
migrating birds each year and an important wintering ground for many 
North American bird species. Notable species include the piping plover 
and peregrine falcon. The mosaic of upland and wetland habitats found 
in the Florida Keys are critical breeding and feeding grounds for 
birds, and refuge land acquisition efforts strive to add to the lands 
already protected.
    Loggerhead, green, hawksbill, and Kemp's ridley sea turtles forage 
in the waters surrounding the refuge, but nesting is limited to refuge 
lands on Ohio Key, where a small number of loggerhead turtle nests are 
laid annually.
    There are 2,278 acres of Wilderness designated on this refuge as of 
1975 per Public Law 632.

Refuge Purposes

    The purposes of the refuges come from the executive orders and 
subsequent laws Congress passed as it established each refuge. There 
are also specific purposes Congress designated for managing the 
National Wildlife Refuge System as a whole. Each of the three refuges 
has different enabling legislation and purposes. This Draft CCP/EA has 
been designed with

[[Page 30141]]

consideration of the distinct purposes of each refuge. These purposes 
are as follows:

Key West National Wildlife Refuge

    `` * * * a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.'' EO 923 
dated August 8, 1908.
    `` * * * particular value in carrying out the national migratory 
bird management program.'' 16 U.S.C. 667b (An Act Authorizing the 
Transfer of Certain Real Property for Wildlife, or other purposes).
    `` * * * so as to provide protection of these areas * * * and to 
ensure * * * the preservation of their wilderness character * * *'' 
(Wilderness Act of 1964, Pub. L. 88-577.)

Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge

    `` * * * as a refuge and breeding ground for great white herons 
(white phase of the great blue heron), other migratory birds and other 
wildlife.'' EO 7993, dated Oct 27, 1938.
    `` * * * for use as an inviolate sanctuary, or for any other 
management purpose, for migratory birds.'' 16 U.S.C. 715d (Migratory 
Bird Conservation Act).
    `` * * * to conserve (A) fish or wildlife which are listed as 
endangered species or threatened species * * * or (B) plants * * *'' 16 
U.S.C. 1534 (Endangered Species Act of 1973).
    `` * * * suitable for (1) incidental fish and wildlife-oriented 
recreational development, (2) the protection of natural resources, (3) 
the conservation of endangered species or threatened species * * *'' 16 
U.S.C. 460k-1 ``* * * the Secretary * * * may accept and use * * * real 
* * * property. Such acceptance may be accomplished under the terms and 
conditions of restrictive covenants imposed by donors * * *'' 16 U.S.C. 
460k-2 (Refuge Recreation Act (16 U.S.C. 460k-460k-4), as amended).
    ``* * * so as to provide protection of these areas * * * and to 
ensure * * * the preservation of their wilderness character * * *'' 
(Wilderness Act of 1964, Pub. L. 88-577.)

National Key Deer Refuge

    ``* * * to protect and preserve in the national interest the Key 
deer and other wildlife resources in the Florida Keys.'' 71 Stat. 412, 
dated Aug. 22, 1957.
    ``* * * to conserve (A) fish or wildlife which are listed as 
endangered species or threatened species * * * or (B) plants * * *'' 16 
U.S.C. 1534 (Endangered Species Act of 1973).
    ``* * * suitable for (1) incidental fish and wildlife-oriented 
recreational development, (2) the protection of natural resources, (3) 
the conservation of endangered species or threatened species * * *'' 16 
U.S.C. 460k-1 ``* * * the Secretary * * * may accept and use * * * real 
* * * property. Such acceptance may be accomplished under the terms and 
conditions of restrictive covenants imposed by donors * * *'' 16 U.S.C. 
460k-2 [Refuge Recreation Act (16 U.S.C. 460k-460k-4], as amended).
    ``* * * for the development, advancement, management, conservation, 
and protection of fish and wildlife resources * * *'' 16 U.S.C. 
742f(a)(4) ``* * * for the benefit of the United States Fish and 
Wildlife Service, in performing its activities and services. Such 
acceptance may be subject to the terms of any restrictive or 
affirmative covenant, or condition of servitude * * *'' 16 U.S.C. 
742f(b)(1) (Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956).
    ``* * * conservation, management, and * * * restoration of the 
fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats * * * for the 
benefit of present and future generations of Americans * * *'' 16 
U.S.C. 668dd(a)(2) (National Wildlife Refuge System Administration 
    ``* * * so as to provide protection of these areas * * * and to 
ensure * * * the preservation of their wilderness character * * *'' 
(Wilderness Act of 1964, Pub. L. 88-577.)


The CCP Process

    The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 (16 
U.S.C. 668dd-668ee), which amended the National Wildlife Refuge System 
Administration Act of 1966, requires us to develop a CCP for each 
national wildlife refuge. The purpose in 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, 
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, wildlife photography, and environmental education 
and interpretation. We will review and update the CCP at least every 15 
years in accordance with the Improvement Act and NEPA.
    Significant issues addressed in the Draft CCP/EA include: Habitat 
fragmentation, fire management, climate change, lack of inventory and 
monitoring, changing public use attitudes, needs and demands, exotic 
species control, imperiled species recovery, and administrative 


    A full description of each alternative is in the Draft CCP/EA. We 
summarize each alternative below.
Alternative A--No Action Alternative
    The Lower Florida Keys refuges have a high diversity of community 
types and endemic species, with many threatened, endangered, rare, and 
imperiled species. The primary mission of these refuges is to provide 
habitat for wildlife. The refuges currently have a small staff and 
funding source for the inventory and monitoring of natural resources. 
Much effort has been put into some resources, such as Key deer and 
their pine rockland habitat, as a result of cooperative partnerships 
with academic and other research organizations. Certain species, such 
as great white herons, white-crowned pigeons, reddish egrets, and sea 
turtles, have been studied over time by refuge biological staff and 
academic partners. Under this alternative, these studies would 
    Baseline data have yet to be established for some protected 
species, species suites, habitats, and cultural resources. The effects 
of natural catastrophes (e.g., Hurricane Wilma in 2005) on the refuges' 
resources have not been assessed and the effect of climate change 
(e.g., sea level rise) is not known.
    Threatened and endangered species are protected through a variety 
of management tools, such as area closures, law enforcement, exotic 
plant control, etc. Limited research and monitoring of focal species, 
such as Key deer and Lower Keys marsh rabbit and some migratory birds 
(e.g., reddish egrets), would continue by utilizing existing staff and 
partnerships. The National Key Deer Refuge prescribed fire management 
program would continue with the objectives to reduce fuels and to 
sustain the pine rockland ecosystem.
    The Service would continue habitat conservation through land 
acquisition within the approved acquisition boundary and cooperative 
agreements with other agencies for non-refuge lands that support the 
refuges' missions. Partnerships exist to promote land conservation. 
Exotic plant control to protect and maintain current habitat would 
occur at existing levels. Currently, exotic plants are controlled

[[Page 30142]]

through partnerships with The Nature Conservancy, the State, and Monroe 
County. A predator management program has been initiated on National 
Key Deer Refuge to reduce the effects of feral cat predation on the 
endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit.
    Ecologically sensitive areas and living resources are protected 
from disturbance or degradation through the use of closure areas, law 
enforcement, and the implementation of the Management Agreement for 
Submerged Lands within the Key West and Great White Heron National 
Wildlife Refuges. The effects of commercial activities and public uses 
(both wildlife-dependent and non-wildlife-dependent) have not been 
fully evaluated and carrying capacities are unknown.
    The Service has an active volunteer program to assist in all facets 
of refuge management. Partnerships for these purposes and research are 
encouraged and maintained. Under this alternative, the existing level 
of administrative resources (staffing, facilities and assets, funding, 
and partnerships) would be maintained. This means some positions may 
not be filled when vacated if funds need to be reallocated to meet 
rising costs or new priorities.
Alternative B--Proposed Alternative
    This alternative assumes a slow to moderate growth of refuge 
resources over the 15-year implementation period of the CCP. It 
proposes a management direction for the enhancement of wildlife 
populations by promoting a natural diversity and abundance of habitats 
for native plants and animals, especially Keys' endemic, trust, and 
keystone imperiled species. Many of the objectives and strategies are 
designed to maintain and restore native communities, particularly the 
globally imperiled pine rocklands, salt marsh and freshwater wetlands, 
and the island beach berm communities. Research and monitoring would 
provide essential information for implementing an adaptive management 
approach to ecosystem conservation. This alternative would provide for 
obtaining baseline data for ecosystem health.
    Current ongoing and proposed programs and efforts focus on 
threatened, endangered, rare, and imperiled species of plants and 
animals. The need for more comprehensive inventory and monitoring for 
baseline data is addressed in this alternative, particularly for 
priority imperiled species and their habitats within the refuges. 
Habitat carrying capacity for Key deer, by island, would be determined 
and the feasibility of population management would be considered within 
the realm of the South Florida Multi-Species Recovery Plan in 
accordance with the Endangered Species Act.
    Habitat enhancement for critically imperiled species, such as the 
Lower Keys marsh rabbit and Key tree-cactus, would occur to ensure the 
long-term sustainability of these species. Opportunities for land 
acquisition from willing sellers would focus on protecting more marsh 
rabbit habitat. Off-refuge nursery propagation of the Key tree-cactus 
would be implemented for later translocation to suitable refuge 
habitats. Research would be initiated to identify causal reasons for 
the marked, long-term decline in the great white heron nesting 
    Since a primary purpose of the refuges is to provide sanctuary for 
nesting and migratory birds, greater protection from human disturbance 
would be provided, particularly at colonial nesting bird rookeries and 
at beach habitats in the backcountry islands. Additional limitations to 
public use may be implemented in sensitive beach areas important for 
shorebirds, terns, sea turtles, and butterflies.
    Strategies are proposed to improve the fire-dependent pine 
rocklands and to enhance habitat features in salt marsh and freshwater 
wetlands that benefit priority species on the National Key Deer Refuge. 
Prescribed fire and mechanical or manual vegetation treatments would be 
used as habitat management tools to reduce wildland fuels and benefit 
priority species and habitats where appropriate. Predictive modeling 
and fire effects monitoring would be used on all prescribed-fire 
treatments in an adaptive management approach to develop site-specific 
burn prescriptions and to determine whether objectives were met. The 
National Key Deer Refuge habitat and fire management plans would be 
revised and implemented accordingly.
    Exotic plant control would continue as an ongoing operation within 
the refuges in order to maintain habitats and prevent new infestations. 
Cooperative efforts would be sought to control seed sources from 
private lands and to increase coordinated mapping and monitoring of 
areas with known infestations. Management of non-native and exotic 
animals would be implemented as directed by the South Florida Multi-
Species Recovery Plan for the benefit of threatened and endangered 
    A primary focus of the visitor services program, as proposed, is to 
enhance environmental education and outreach efforts substantially to 
reach larger numbers of students, educators, and visitors. This 
alternative also focuses on increasing public awareness, understanding, 
and support for the refuges' conservation mission. It places priority 
on wildlife-dependent uses, such as wildlife photography and wildlife 
observation. A Visitor Services' step-down plan would specify program 
details consistent with the Service's visitor services' program 
standards. Non-wildlife-dependent forms of recreation would be limited 
or restricted in sensitive areas and awareness efforts would be 
stepped-up to inform visitors about protecting Wilderness areas.
    The basic administrative and operational needs of the refuges have 
been addressed. Essential new staffing is proposed through the addition 
of six permanent full-time staff. Daily operation of the refuge would 
be guided by the CCP through the development and implementation of 
eleven step-down management plans. Wilderness and cultural resource 
protection objectives and strategies would be incorporated within the 
appropriate step-down management plans. The modest growth in resources 
would be used for wildlife monitoring and habitat enhancement to better 
serve the refuges' purposes and the CCP's vision. Existing facilities 
and vehicles would be maintained with the exception of the new visitor 
services' facility that is proposed.
Alternative C
    This alternative assumes a moderate to substantial growth of the 
refuges' resources from internal or external sources. It would more 
fully realize the refuges' missions and address the huge number of 
imperiled species and habitat types. While Alternative C contains many 
of the provisions to protect and restore habitats similar to 
Alternative B, it emphasizes a broader suite of priority species. The 
long-term ecological inventory and monitoring plan would be expanded to 
cover more species and species suites. Additional studies on some 
species would be undertaken and additional biological staffing would be 
required. The use of captive, off-refuge sources of some species facing 
potential extirpation (e.g., Lower Keys marsh rabbits) would be 
explored for reintroduction after a natural catastrophe, such as a 
major hurricane. In certain habitats, some alternative habitat 
management techniques would be studied and applied. Education and 
outreach programs on alternative habitat management tools and 
strategies are proposed. Studies to monitor the immediate and/or long-
term effects of natural, catastrophic events (e.g., hurricanes) and 
global climate change,

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particularly sea level rise, would be initiated.
    Under this alternative, the plan anticipates shifts in the Visitor 
Services' Program if visitation and public use increase. Positions are 
proposed to add another refuge ranger position to coordinate and 
enhance volunteerism and to foster relationships with the refuges' 
friends group and other partners for environmental education and 
outreach programs.
    Resource protection and visitor safety would be greatly enhanced 
through this alternative, with the addition of two new law enforcement 
officers. This would allow for more patrol and enforcement of closed 
areas and for more protection of sensitive areas, especially of 
Wilderness areas or cultural resource sites. A cultural resources' 
inventory would be conducted.
    The operation of the refuges for meeting their goals and purposes 
would be more optimally realized under this alternative. Implementation 
of the plan, including details of refuge operations, would also occur 
through the development of eleven step-down management plans. New 
staffing is proposed through the addition of seven permanent full-time 
staff. These positions are in addition to the six full-time positions 
proposed in Alternative B, for a total of thirteen full-time positions 
with Alternative C. New maintenance and staff housing facilities are 
proposed along with new vehicles and boats to accommodate the staffing 

Next Step

    After the comment period ends, we will analyze the comments and 
address them in the form of a final CCP and a Finding of No Significant 

Public Availability of Comments

    Before including your address, phone number, e-mail address, or 
other personal identifying information in your comment, you should be 
aware that your entire comment--including your personal identifying 
information--may be made publicly available at any time. While you can 
ask us in your comment to withhold your personal identifying 
information from public review, we cannot guarantee that we will be 
able to do so.

    Authority: This notice is published under the authority of the 
National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, Public Law 

    Dated: April 8, 2008.
Cynthia K. Dohner,
Acting Regional Director.
 [FR Doc. E8-11617 Filed 5-22-08; 8:45 am]