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A small, brown and yellow fish with iridescent scales around its gills
Information icon A female spring pygmy sunfish. Photo by Matt Laschet.

Spring pygmy sunfish critical habitat proposal

What is the spring pygmy sunfish and where does it occur?

The spring pygmy sunfish is a spring-associated fish which is currently found in spring systems in the Tennessee River drainage in northern Alabama. Understanding of the distribution of the spring pygmy sunfish changed in 2015 with the discovery of the fish in Blackwell Swamp on Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Currently the spring pygmy sunfish is known from Beaverdam Spring/Creek in Limestone County and Blackwell Swamp in Madison County. Historically, this sunfish was known to occur at two other sites in northern Alabama. The species’ decline has been attributed to water pollution, a reduction of water quantity, and impoundments.

What action is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking?

The Service is proposing to revise the designated critical habitat for the spring pygmy sunfish to include Blackwell Swamp. We are re-opening the comment period so the public can provide input on the proposed addition to the spring pygmy sunfish critical habitat, as well as any other aspect of the proposal.

Why is the Service proposing to add Blackwell Swamp to the designated critical habitat of the spring pygmy sunfish?

In 2015, biologists discovered a new population of spring pygmy sunfish in Blackwell Swamp, which is 1.4 miles of stream and 303 acres of habitat located entirely within Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. This area has the appropriate water quality, spring-like flows, and has an abundance of the appropriate types of aquatic vegetation on which this species depends. Adding Blackwell Swamp as proposed critical habitat will better ensure the long-term conservation of the species.

If you add Blackwell Swamp to the proposed designated critical habitat, how much critical habitat will you have altogether?

Blackwell Swamp contains 303 acres and 1.4 stream miles of habitat. Under the proposal, this unit would be an addition to the 1,549 acres and eight stream miles proposed in 2013, totaling 1,852 acres and 9.4 stream miles.

Table 1 – Occupancy and Ownership of the Proposed Critical Habitat Units for the Spring Pygmy Sunfish in Limestone and Madison County, AL

Unit Location Private ownership km (mi); ha (ac) Federal ownership km (mi); ha (ac) Total length km (mi) Total area ha (ac)
1 Beaverdam Spring/Creek 5.9 (3.7); 210 (518) 3.5 (2.21); 344 (849) 9.5 (5.9) 553 (1,367)
2 Pryor Spring/Branch 0.2 (0.15); 8.1 (20) 3.1 (1.95); 65 (162) 3.4 (2.1) 73 (182)
3 Blackwell Swamp/Run 0; 0 2.3 (1.4); 123 (303) 2.3 (1.4) 123 (303)
Total 6.1 (3.85); 218 (538) 8.8 (5.56); 532 (1,314) 15.2 (9.4) 749 (1,852)

What is critical habitat?

The Service identifies critical habitat when it proposes to list an animal or plant for listing as endangered or threatened. Critical habitat, a term defined in the ESA, is identified based on what an animal or plant needs to survive and reproduce by reviewing the best scientific information concerning a species’ present and historical ranges, habitat and biology.

The designation of critical habitat helps ensure that federal agencies and the public are aware of the habitat needs of the spring pygmy sunfish, and proper consultation is conducted by federal agencies when required by law.

What does a critical habitat designation do?

When an area is designated as critical habitat for a listed species, federal agencies are required to ensure that any action they fund, authorize or carry out is not likely to result in the destruction or adverse modification of the habitat. This is carried out through consultation with the Service. This only affects projects that need a federal permit or are being funded by a federal agency.

The designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve or other conservation area. A critical habitat designation also does not allow the government or public to access private lands, nor does it require implementation of restoration, recovery or enhancement measures by non-federal landowners.

What information is the Service looking for during the re-opening of the comment period?

We request comments or information from the public or from any interested party on any aspect of the proposed designation of critical habitat. However, we particularly seek comments concerning:

  1. The reasons why we should or should not designate habitats as “critical habitat” under section 4 of the Act (16 U.S.C 1531 et seq.), specifically the Blackwell Swamp addition, including whether there are threats to the species from human activity, the degree of which can be expected to increase due to the designation, and whether that increase in threat outweighs the benefit of designation such that the designation of critical habitat is not prudent.
  2. Land use designation and current or planned activities in the subject areas and their possible impacts on proposed critical habitat.

If you submitted comments or information on the proposed rule (77 FR 60180) during the initial comment period from October 2, 2012, to December 3, 2012, during the second comment period from April 29, 2013, to May 29, 2013 (78 FR 25033), or during the third comment period from February 5, 2014, to March 7, 2014 (79 FR 6871), please do not resubmit them. We have incorporated them into the public record as part of the previous three comment periods, and we will fully consider them in the preparation of our final determination.

How can the public submit comments?

Written comments: You may submit written comment by one of the following methods:

Electronically

Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal. In the Search box, enterFWS-R4-ES-2013-0010, which is the docket number for the critical habitat of the proposed rulemaking. You may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”

By hard copy

Submit by U.S. mail or hand-delivery to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R4-ES-2013-0010; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA 22203.

We request that you send comment only by methods described above. We will post all comments on regulations.gov. This generally means that we will post any personal information you provide us (see the Public Comments section below for more details).

For further information

Contact William Pearson, Field Supervisor, Alabama Ecological Services Field Office, 1208 Main Street, Daphne, AL 36526; or by telephone (251) 441-5181. If you use a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD), please call the Federal Information Relay Service (FIRS) at (800) 877-8339.

What has been the process for finalizing this critical habitat proposal for the spring pygmy sunfish?

The comment period for the proposed critical habitat of the spring pygmy sunfish has been open to the public on four separate occasions. Each time we receive comments from the public, we take time to process and analyze them. Sometimes as a result of those comments, changes to the proposal occur. When we make a significant change, we must get more feedback from the public. In the midst of the original proposal, a new population of spring pygmy sunfish was also discovered. This delayed the finalization process even further.

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