[Federal Register: January 13, 2010 (Volume 75, Number 8)]
[Page 1803-1806]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]



Fish and Wildlife Service

[FWS-R4-R-2009-N162; 40136-1265-0000-S3]

Lower Florida Keys Refuges, Monroe County, FL

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Notice of availability: final Comprehensive Conservation Plan 
and finding of no significant impact.


SUMMARY: We, the Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), announce our 
decision and the availability of the final CCP and finding of no 
significant impact (FONSI) for the Environmental Assessment for the 
Lower Florida Keys Refuges in accordance with the National 
Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements. We completed a thorough 
analysis of impacts on the human environment, which are included in the 
Environmental Assessment (Appendix N of the CCP). The CCP will guide us 
in managing and administering the Lower Florida Keys Refuges for the 
next 15 years.

ADDRESSES: You may obtain a copy of the CCP by writing to: Ms. Anne 
Morkill, Refuge Manager, Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex, 
28590 Watson Boulevard, Big Pine Key, FL 33043. You may also access and 
download the document from the Service's Web site: http://

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Ms. Anne Morkill; telephone: 305/872-
2239; or Mary Morris, Natural Resource Planner; telephone 850/567-6202.



    With this notice, we finalize the CCP process for the Lower Florida 
Keys Refuges. We started this process through a notice in the Federal 
Register on May 9, 2003 (68 FR 25058).
    The Lower Florida Keys Refuges includes three wildlife refuges--Key 
West National Wildlife Refuge (Key West NWR), Great White Heron 
National Wildlife Refuge (Great White Heron NWR), and National Key Deer 
Refuge in Monroe County, Florida. These are a collection of low-lying, 
subtropical islands between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean 
that protect all the vital habitats representative of the Florida Keys 
ecosystem, including the globally imperiled pine rockland and tropical 
hardwood hammock. These geologically and climatically distinct islands 
provide a haven for a diversity of native flora and fauna, including 
endemic, threatened, endangered, and candidate species.

 Key West NWR

    Located west of Key West and accessible only by boat, the refuge 
consists of the Marquesas Keys and 13 other keys distributed across 
over 375 square miles of open water. Key West NWR 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 1 percent (2,019 acres) being land. Most 
islands are dominated by mangrove plant communities.
    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 10 wading-bird species that nest 
in the refuge. Other notable imperiled species include sea turtles. 
More loggerhead and green sea turtle nests are found each year in Key 
West NWR 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 in Key West NWR, except Ballast Key, which is 
privately owned, as a part of the National Wilderness Preservation 
System. These islands total 2,109 acres.

Great White Heron NWR

    Great White Heron NWR 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 6,300 acres of land, including 1,900 land 
acres which were designated Wilderness Areas in 1975, also under Public 
Law 93-632. While the islands 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. We co-manage this area with the State through a 
``Management Agreement for Submerged Lands Within

[[Page 1804]]

the Boundaries of Key West and Great White Heron National Wildlife 
Refuges'' (hereinafter referred to as 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 10 wading bird species, including the reddish egret, and by 
many neotropical migratory bird species.

National Key Deer Refuge

    The National Key Deer Refuge was established on August 22, 1957, to 
protect and conserve Key deer and other wildlife resources. It 
comprises about 8,983 acres of land on several islands within the 
authorized 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 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 
nests are laid annually. There are 2,278 acres of Wilderness Area 
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 Refuge 
System as a whole. Each of the three refuges has different enabling 
legislation and purposes. The CCP has been designed with consideration 
of the distinct purposes of each refuge. For the purposes of each 
refuge, refer to a notice in the Federal Register dated May 23, 2008 
(73 FR 30139).

Alternatives, Including the Preferred Alternative

    The Service developed three alternatives for managing the refuges 
over the next 15 years and chose Alternative B as the preferred 
alternative. A description of the three alternatives follows.

Alternative A--(Current Management--No Action)

    The Lower Florida Keys Refuges have a high diversity of community 
types and endemic species, with many threatened, endangered, candidate, 
and other 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 inventorying and monitoring of natural 
resources. Much effort has been put into some resources, such as Key 
deer and their habitat (pine rocklands), as a result of cooperative 
partnerships with academic and other research organizations. Certain 
species, such as great white herons, white-crowned pigeons, and sea 
turtles, have been studied over time by refuge biological staff. Under 
this alternative, these studies would continue.
    Baseline data have yet to be established for some protected 
species, species suites, habitats, and cultural resources. The effects 
of natural catastrophic disturbances (e.g., Hurricane Wilma in 2005) on 
the refuges' resources have not been fully assessed and the effect of 
climate change (e.g., sea level rise) is not known.
    We would protect threatened and endangered species through a 
variety of management tools, such as area closures, law enforcement, 
exotic plant control, etc. Working with partners, we would continue 
limited research and monitoring of focal species, such as Key deer, 
Lower Keys marsh rabbit, and some migratory birds. The National Key 
Deer Refuge's prescribed fire management program would continue with 
the objectives to reduce fuels and sustain the pine rockland ecosystem 
for the benefit of Key deer.
    As funding and willing sellers are available, we would continue 
habitat conservation through land acquisition within the approved 
acquisition boundary and through lease 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 by relying on 
partnerships with the Nature Conservancy, the Florida Fish and Wildlife 
Conservation Commission, and Monroe County. A predator management 
program is currently under development on National Key Deer Refuge to 
reduce the effects of feral cat predation on the endangered Lower Keys 
marsh rabbit and other native wildlife.
    Most 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. Impacts from concentrated, non-wildlife-dependent uses 
threaten a limited number of sites, particularly islands with 
accessible sand beaches. The effects of commercial activities and 
public uses (both wildlife-dependent and non-wildlife-dependent) have 
not been fully evaluated and visitor carrying capacities have not been 
    We have an active volunteer program to assist in all facets of 
refuge management. Partnerships for these purposes and for research are 
encouraged and maintained. Under this alternative, the existing level 
of administrative resources (e.g., 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--(Preferred Alternative)

    This alternative assumes a slow-to-moderate growth of refuge 
resources over the 15-year implementation period of the CCP. It 
proposes a proactive and adaptive ecosystem-management approach for the 
enhancement of wildlife populations. It will promote 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. Active management strategies will be applied 
particularly within the globally imperiled pine rockland, salt marsh 
transition, and freshwater wetland habitats, and island beach berm 
communities. We will initiate research and long-term monitoring to 
expand the collection of baseline data and measure variables of 
ecosystem health. We will promote

[[Page 1805]]

cooperative studies to monitor and model the immediate and/or long-term 
effects of natural catastrophic events (e.g., hurricanes, wildfire) and 
global climate change, particularly sea level rise.
    Current ongoing and proposed programs and efforts focus on 
threatened, endangered, and candidate species of plants and animals. 
The need for more comprehensive inventorying and long-term monitoring 
is addressed in this alternative, particularly for priority imperiled 
species and their habitats within the refuges. The feasibility of 
managing the core population of Key deer to minimize the effects of 
over-browsing on native plants will be considered in accordance with 
the Endangered Species Act.
    Habitat enhancement for critically imperiled species, such as the 
Lower Keys marsh rabbit and Key tree cactus, will occur to ensure the 
long-term sustainability of these species. Opportunities for land 
acquisition will focus more strategically on protecting environmentally 
sensitive habitat by contacting specific property owners to determine 
their willingness to sell, with a particular emphasis on enhancing 
habitat connectivity and protecting marsh rabbit habitat. Off-refuge 
nursery propagation of the Key tree cactus will be implemented for 
later translocation to suitable refuge habitats. Cooperative 
partnerships with nurseries and botanical gardens will be developed to 
secure seed and plant material of rare and endemic plant species to 
ensure genetically viable sources for future restoration needs. 
Research will be initiated to identify causal reasons for the marked, 
long-term decline in the great white heron nesting population and to 
evaluate the potential impacts of sea level rise on the ecology of 
wading birds.
    Since a primary purpose of the refuges is to provide sanctuary for 
nesting and migratory birds, we will provide greater protection from 
human disturbance, 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 enhance the biological diversity and 
resiliency of the fire-dependent pine rocklands and also to enhance 
fire-adapted habitat features in salt marsh transition and freshwater 
wetlands that benefit priority species in the National Key Deer Refuge. 
Prescribed fire and mechanical or manual vegetation treatments will be 
used as habitat management tools to reduce wildland fuels and restore 
desirable habitat features where appropriate. Predictive modeling and 
fire effects monitoring will 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. We will 
conduct research on fire behavior, fuel response, and fire history. The 
fire management step-down plan will be revised and implemented 
accordingly in conjunction with the development of a habitat management 
step-down plan.
    We will continue exotic plant control as an ongoing operation 
within the refuges to maintain native habitats and prevent new 
infestations. Cooperative efforts will be sought with private property 
owners and homeowners associations to control seed sources from private 
lands. Existing partnerships will be reinforced to increase coordinated 
mapping and monitoring of treated areas with known infestations and 
ongoing control needs. Management of non-native exotic predators will 
be implemented as directed by the South Florida Multi-Species Recovery 
Plan for the benefit of threatened and endangered species. An early 
detection and rapid response program will be implemented in cooperation 
with Federal, State, and local authorities to address the increasing 
invasion by and potential establishment of exotic snakes, lizards, and 
other non-native animals in the Florida Keys.
    A primary focus of the visitor services program, as proposed, is to 
enhance environmental education and outreach efforts substantially to 
reach larger numbers of residents, 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 photography and 
wildlife observation. A new visitor center on U.S. Highway 1 on Big 
Pine Key and enhanced visitor facilities at existing sites (e.g., Blue 
Hole and Watson-Mannillo Nature Trails) are proposed. Non-wildlife-
dependent forms of recreation will be limited or restricted in 
sensitive areas and awareness efforts will be stepped-up to inform 
visitors about protecting wilderness areas. A Visitor Services step-
down plan will specify program details consistent with the Service's 
visitor service program standards.
    The basic administrative and operational needs of the refuges have 
been addressed. Essential new staffing is proposed through the addition 
and funding of five permanent, full-time employees. Daily operation of 
the refuges will be guided by the CCP and the development and 
implementation of 19 projects and 11 step-down management plans. 
Wilderness and cultural resource protection objectives and strategies 
will be incorporated within the appropriate step-down management plans. 
The modest growth in administrative resources will be used for wildlife 
monitoring and habitat enhancement to better serve the refuges' 
purposes and the CCP's vision. With the exception of a new Visitor 
Center that is proposed, the existing number of facilities will be 
maintained. Energy efficiency standards will be applied wherever 
feasible during facility maintenance, repair, or renovation projects. 
Existing vehicles will be replaced with alternative fuel vehicles to 
increase fuel efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

Alternative C

    This alternative assumes a moderate-to-substantial growth of refuge 
resources from internal or external sources. It would more fully 
realize the refuges' missions and address the large number of 
threatened, endangered, and candidate species along with other 
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, 
assuming the addition of several new staff positions and increased 
funding. The long-term inventorying 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 rabbit) 
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. Fire management 
efforts would emphasize fire suppression and the reduction of hazardous 
fuels by mechanical or manual means to protect private properties, and 
the use of prescribed fire would be reduced or eliminated. Under this 
alternative, the CCP anticipates shifts in the Visitor Services program 
in order to increase visitation and public use. A refuge ranger 
position is proposed to coordinate and enhance volunteerism, to foster 
expanded relationships with the Friends and Volunteers of Refuges

[[Page 1806]]

(FAVOR), and to establish new partnerships for environmental education 
and outreach programs.
    Resource protection and visitor safety would be greatly enhanced 
through this alternative, with the addition of two law enforcement 
officers. This would allow for more patrol and enforcement of closures 
and sensitive areas protection, especially of wilderness areas or 
cultural resource sites. New areas of the backcountry would be closed 
to public access to protect wildlife resources. We would seek expanded 
management authority to regulate public and commercial activities in 
nearshore waters and submerged lands under the Management Agreement. A 
cultural resources field investigation and inventory would be 
    Implementation of Alternative C would also occur through the 
development of 11 step-down management plans. New staffing would be 
proposed through the addition of 6 permanent, full-time employees. The 
positions would be in addition to the 5 full-time positions proposed in 
Alternative B, for a total of 11 full-time positions in Alternative C. 
New maintenance and government housing facilities would be proposed 
along with new vehicles and boats to accommodate the staff increases. 
While Alternative C would promote our vision for these refuges, the 
resources available to implement it would not likely be forthcoming in 
the current economic environment as compared to when first proposed.


    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, 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 every15 years in accordance with the Administration 


    Notices of availability of the Draft Comprehensive Conservation 
Plan and Environmental Assessment (Draft CCP/EA) were sent to 200 
persons on the mailing list and copies were made available for a 30-day 
public review period as announced in the Federal Register on May 23, 
2008 (73 FR 30139). At least 47 persons attended two public meetings 
held on the Draft CCP/EA during the open comment period. We received 25 
comment letters by mail or e-mail from 16 persons and 11 non-
governmental organizations. Comments were received from 4 government 
agencies and 1 Tribal government. The Draft CCP/EA was circulated 
through the Florida State Clearinghouse to 8 State, regional, and local 

Selected Alternative

    After considering the comments we received, and based on the 
professional judgment of the planning team, we selected Alternative B 
to implement the CCP. It promotes the enhancement of wildlife 
populations by maintaining and enhancing a diversity and abundance of 
habitats for native plants and animals, especially imperiled species 
that are only found in the Florida Keys. Many of the objectives and 
strategies are designed to maintain and restore native plant 
communities and ensure the biological integrity across the landscape. 
Strategies are designed to restore and maintain the fire-dependent pine 
rocklands and to enhance habitat features of selected salt marsh 
transition and freshwater wetland communities that benefit priority 
species in the National Key Deer Refuge. Research and monitoring will 
provide essential information for implementing an adaptive management 
approach to strategic landscape conservation, providing flexibility in 
management strategies in order to incorporate new information and 
changing environmental conditions. The CCP also provides for obtaining 
baseline data and monitoring indicator species to detect changes in 
ecosystem diversity and integrity related to climate change.
    Since a primary purpose of the refuges is to provide sanctuary for 
nesting and migratory birds, protection from human disturbance will be 
enhanced, particularly at colonial nesting bird rookeries and at beach 
habitats in the backcountry islands of the Key West and Great White 
Heron NWRs. Ongoing research to identify causal reasons for the marked, 
long-term decline in the great white heron nesting population, as well 
as studies on the impacts of sea level rise on wading birds, will be 
    A primary focus of the visitor services program is to enhance 
environmental education and outreach efforts through existing venues 
and expanded partnerships to reach a diversity of local residents, 
businesses, students, educators, and visitors. This plan focuses on 
increasing public awareness, understanding, and support for the 
refuges' conservation mission. It places priority on wildlife-dependent 
recreational uses, such as wildlife observation and photography. Non-
wildlife dependent forms of recreation, such as beach picnicking and 
sunbathing, will be limited or restricted in sensitive areas. Awareness 
efforts will be expanded to inform visitors about protecting wilderness 
    The compatibility determinations for (1) Environmental education 
and interpretation; (2) hiking/daypacking, jogging, and walking 
(National Key Deer Refuge only); (3) bicycling (National Key Deer 
Refuge only); (4) wildlife observation and photography; (5) fishing; 
(6) beach use (National Key Deer Refuge only); (7) public use on 
wilderness and backcountry islands; (8) research and monitoring; (9) 
mosquito management (National Key Deer Refuge and Great White Heron NWR 
only); and (10) horseback riding (National Key Deer Refuge only) are 
available in Appendix F of the CCP.


    This notice is published under the authority of the National 
Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, Public Law 105-57.

    Dated: August 24, 2009.
Patrick Leonard,
Acting Regional Director.
[FR Doc. 2010-447 Filed 1-12-10; 8:45 am]