[Federal Register Volume 77, Number 62 (Friday, March 30, 2012)]
[Pages 19309-19311]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2012-7667]



Fish and Wildlife Service

[FWS-R6-R-2012-N024; FF06R06000-FXRS1265066CCP0S2-123]

Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Great Falls, MT; 
Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Assessment

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Notice of availability; 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 Benton Lake National 
Wildlife Refuge Complex for public review and comment. The Draft CCP/EA 
describes our proposal for managing the refuge complex for the next 15 

DATES: To ensure consideration, please send your written comments by 
May 18, 2012.
    We will announce upcoming public meetings in local news media.

ADDRESSES: You may submit comments or requests for copies or more 
information by any of the following methods. You may request hard 
copies or a CD-ROM of the documents.
    Email: toni_griffin@fws.gov. Include ``Benton Lake Refuge Complex 
Draft CCP/EA'' in the subject line of the message.
    U.S. Mail: Toni Griffin, Planning Team Leader, Suite 300, 134 Union 
Boulevard, Lakewood, CO 80228.
    Information Request: A copy of the Draft CCP/EA may be obtained by 
writing to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Refuge Planning, 
134 Union Boulevard, Suite 300, Lakewood, Colorado 80228; or by 
download from http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/planning.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Toni Griffin, 303-236-4378 (phone); 
303-236-4792 (fax); or toni_griffin@fws.gov (email) or David C. Lucas, 
303-236-4366 (phone): 303-236-4792 (fax): or david_c_lucas@fws.gov.



    The 163,304-acre Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge Complex 
(refuge complex) is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System and is 
located in northwest and north-central Montana. Spanning both sides of 
the Continental Divide, the refuge complex is a collection of diverse 
landscapes, from wetlands and mixed-grass prairie in the east to 
forests, intermountain grasslands, rivers, and lakes in the west. The 
refuge complex oversees management of 2 refuges, 1 wetland management 
district containing 22 waterfowl production areas, 3 conservation 
areas, and administers 216 easements within the Refuge System:

[ssquf] Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1929 
and consists of 12,383 fee-title acres and 76.88 acres of right-of-way 
easement. It is located on the northern Great Plains, 50 miles east of 
the Rocky Mountains and 12 miles north of Great Falls, Montana.
[ssquf] Benton Lake Wetland Management District was established in 
1975. It includes 10 counties (Cascade, Chouteau, Glacier, Hill, Lewis 
and Clark, Liberty, Pondera, Powell, Teton, Toole), 22 waterfowl 
production areas, and 4 distinct easement programs.
[ssquf] Blackfoot Valley Conservation Area (CA) was established in 1995 
and expanded in 2011. This conservation easement program has the 
potential to protect up to 103,500 acres in the Blackfoot Valley by 
buying conservation easements on private land within the 824,024-acre 
project area.
[ssquf] Rocky Mountain Front CA was established in 2005 and expanded in 
2011. This conservation easement program has the potential to protect 
up to 295,000 acres in the Rocky Mountain Front (Front) by buying 
conservation easements on private land within the 918,000-acre project 
[ssquf] Swan River National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1973 and 
consists of 1,568.81 acres. It is located in the Swan Valley, 38 miles 
southeast of Creston, Montana.
[ssquf] Swan Valley CA was authorized in 2011. This conservation area 
has the potential to protect up to 10,000 acres in the Swan Valley by 
buying conservation easements on private land, and up to 1,000 acres in 
fee-title land next to the Swan River Refuge within the 187,400-acre 
project area.

Refuge complex lands and waters are important corridors for birds, 
fish, and other wildlife. Across the refuge complex, there exists a 
very high level of diversity. Wildlife ranges from migratory waterfowl 
to grassland birds, to native trout, to ``charismatic mega fauna'' such 
as elk, gray wolf, and grizzly bear. Refuge complex lands harbor 
Federal and State species of concern. Threatened and endangered species 
include bull trout, grizzly bear, Canada lynx, and water howellia. 
Candidate species include Sprague's pipit and wolverine. The refuge 
complex is of great value to waterfowl and shorebirds, as well as other 
migrating water-dependent bird species, because of the diversity of 
wetland and upland habitats that provide for the diverse life cycle 
needs of these species. The refuge complex has large, intact areas of 
native prairie that provide habitat for grassland birds that are one of 
the most imperiled groups of migratory birds nationwide.


The CCP Process

    The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 (16 
U.S.C. 668dd-668ee) (Refuge Administration Act), as amended by the 
National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, requires us to 
develop a

[[Page 19310]]

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 and photography, and 
environmental education and interpretation. We will review and update 
the CCP at least every 15 years in accordance with the Refuge 
Administration Act.

Public Outreach

    A Notice of Intent to prepare a CCP was published in the Federal 
Register August 18, 2008 (73, FR 48237). During scoping and throughout 
the process, we requested public comments and considered and 
incorporated them in numerous ways. Public outreach has included local 
news media announcements, a planning update, and several public scoping 
meetings. In addition, a biological workshop to discuss management 
issues and options related to water management, selenium contamination, 
and public use at the Benton Lake Refuge took place in Great Falls, 
Montana June 2011. Comments we received cover topics such as land 
protection, climate change, wetland health, water quality, hunting, 
wildlife observation, and environmental education. We have considered 
and evaluated all of these comments, with many incorporated into the 
various alternatives addressed in the Draft CCP and the EA.

CCP Alternatives We Are Considering

    During the scoping process with which we started work on this Draft 
CCP, we, other governmental partners, and the public raised several 
issues. Our Draft CCP addresses these issues. The Draft CCP/EA includes 
the analyses of two different sets of alternatives. The first analysis 
includes three alternatives for managing the refuge complex. The second 
analysis includes five alternatives for addressing the declining 
condition of the Benton Lake Refuge wetlands. A full description of 
each analysis and the associated alternatives is in the EA. The 
alternatives are summarized below.

Alternatives for the Refuge Complex

    Alternative A, Current Management (No Action). Management activity 
being conducted by the Service would remain the same. The Service would 
not develop any new management, restoration, or education programs at 
the refuge complex. Current habitat and wildlife practices benefiting 
migratory species and other wildlife would not be expanded or changed. 
Habitat management within the refuge complex has been focused on 
benefitting migratory birds, primarily waterfowl. Other species are 
considered through land protection programs and partnerships (for 
example, grizzly bear and bull trout). Staff would continue monitoring, 
inventory, and research activities at their current levels. Money and 
staff levels would remain the same with little change in overall 
trends. Programs would follow the same direction, emphasis, and 
intensity as they do at present.
    Alternative B. Management efforts would be focused on maintaining 
the resiliency and sustainability of native grasslands, forests, 
shrublands, and unaltered wetlands throughout the refuge complex by 
emulating natural processes. Prescribed fire, grazing, and other 
management techniques would be used to replicate historical disturbance 
factors. Where feasible, restoration of native uplands would occur. For 
wetlands where water management capability exists, management efforts 
would be focused on achieving conditions that are more consistent by 
minimizing the effects of drought periods of the northern Great Plains 
and Rocky Mountains. Management would be active and intensive to keep 
these conditions in a consistent state for wildlife using tools such as 
artificial flooding, drawdowns, fire, rest, and grazing. Changes in the 
refuge complex's research and monitoring, staff, operations, and 
infrastructure would likely be required to achieve this alternative's 
goals and objectives. The success of these efforts and programs would 
depend on added staff, research, and monitoring programs, operations 
money, infrastructure, and new and expanded partnerships.
    Alternative C, the Proposed Action. Emphasis would be placed on 
self-sustaining systems with ecological processes functioning for long-
term productivity. Management efforts would focus on maintaining and 
restoring ecological processes including natural communities and the 
dynamics of the ecosystems of the northern Great Plains and northern 
Rocky Mountains. Conservation of native landscapes would be a high 
priority accomplished by protecting habitats from conversion using a 
combination of partnerships, easements and fee-title lands, and through 
active management and proactive enforcement of easements. Management 
actions such as prescribed fire, grazing, and invasive species control 
would be used to maintain the resiliency and sustainability of Service-
owned lands throughout the refuge complex. Whenever possible, habitat 
conditions would be allowed fluctuate with climatically driven wet and 
dry cycles, which are essential for long-term productivity. The success 
of these efforts and programs would depend on added staff, research, 
and monitoring programs, operations money, infrastructure, and new and 
expanded partnerships.

Alternatives for Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge

    The Service and the public have identified declining wetland 
productivity and selenium contamination, and its effects on all aspects 
of management at the refuge, as one of the most critical situations 
needing to be addressed in the CCP planning process. To fully 
understand what is causing this decline, the Service met with 
consultants from Greenbrier Wetland Service in 2009 to understand what 
changes had occurred in the Benton Lake wetlands over time and how this 
might relate to the observed declines in productivity, increases in 
invasive species and increasing selenium contamination. In addition, 
the United States Geological Survey developed a water budget model 
based on more than 30 years of data and selenium model based on 
research conducted by USGS and the University of Montana on the refuge. 
These models, coupled with a hydro geomorphic assessment, were used to 
develop and analyze the management alternatives and to select one as 
the proposed action for the refuge.
    The Service developed and analyzed five alternatives representing a 
full range of options to address the declining condition of the Benton 
Lake Refuge wetlands. The Service selected ``Self-sustaining Systems 
through Adaptive Resource Management'' as the Proposed Action. Under 
the Proposed Action, the Service will (1) start to address the selenium 
load, and (2) work throughout the watershed to reduce incoming 
selenium, and (3) monitor results and make necessary changes to pumping 
and water management infrastructure to achieve the long-term goal of a 
more natural process. The Service identified this alternative as the 
best option for

[[Page 19311]]

addressing the declining condition of wetlands based on the 
effectiveness of treatment, environmental and social consequences, and 

Next Steps

    After this comment period ends, we will analyze the comments we may 
issie a finding of no significant impact and final CCP, or if 
significant impacts are identified, the Service will prepare an 
environmental impact statement.

Public Availability of Comments

    Before including your address, phone number, email 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.

    Dated: February 29, 2012.
Matt Hogan
Acting Deputy Regional Director, Mountain-Prairie Region, U.S. Fish and 
Wildlife Service.
[FR Doc. 2012-7667 Filed 3-29-12; 8:45 am]