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Black pinesnake. Photo by Jim Lee, The Nature Conservancy.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reopens comment period and holds public meetings on proposed Critical Habitat for the black pinesnake

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is reopening the public comment period on a proposal to designate critical habitat for the black pinesnake. Anyone interested in this proposal and the recovery of the black pinesnake is invited to comment for 30 days beginning October 11, 2018 and ending on November 13, 2018.

The black pinesnake, a non-venomous constrictor, was federally listed as threatened in November 2015. It is currently found only in Mississippi and Alabama. When it was added to the list of protected wildlife, the Service also finalized a special rule to permit a series of management activities important to landowners and forest owners that simultaneously benefit the snake and are part of approved best management practices that many forest owners have adopted.

A map of southeastern Mississippi and southwestern Alabama
Critical Habitat for black pinesnake. Map by USFWS. Click to enlarge.

A critical habitat designation for the black pinesnake was first proposed in March 2015. At that time, the Service identified eight areas encompassing 338,100 acres as proposed critical habitat. Six of these areas, one of which consists of two subunits, are in Mississippi (Forrest, George, Green, Harrison, Jones, Marion, Perry, Stone and Wayne counties), and two units are in Clarke County, Alabama. All of these areas are currently occupied by the pinesnake.

Although the Service is now proposing a slight increase in the total critical habitat designation to 338,379 acres, fewer proposed acres are now on private land and more are on state-owned land. The change follows a revision of the boundaries of Unit 8 in Alabama’s Clarke County based on a reassessment using updated imagery of wetlands, soils, and land cover.

An economic analysis of the proposed critical habitat designation estimates the impacts to be roughly $190,000 the first year and less in subsequent years. Those costs are expected to be limited to additional administrative efforts on the part of federal agencies required by the law to consider impacts from activities those agencies fund or permit in these units. Ongoing conservation efforts in these units for several other federally listed species such as the threatened gopher tortoise and endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and dusky gopher frog also benefit the black pinesnake, since it has similar habitat needs.

The Service will host two informational meetings on this revised critical habitat proposal and its associated economic analysis. The first meeting will be on October 22 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, from 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm at Pearl River Community College: the second will be on October 24, in Thomasville, Alabama, from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm at Coastal Alabama Community College.

The black pinesnake is native to the longleaf pine forests, an ecosystem that is one of the most ecologically diverse in the world and that is in peril. Longleaf forests once covered more than 90 million acres from the South Atlantic Coastal Plain of southern Virginia to the West Gulf Coastal Plain of Texas. Today, less than five percent of that original area remains.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) allows the Service to identify the location of areas essential to the conservation of endangered or threatened species, which it terms critical habitat. Designating critical habitat under the ESA should not affect private landowners taking action on their land unless the action involves federal funds, permits or activities. The designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve or other conservation area, nor does it allow the government or public to access private lands. Landowners will not be required to convert their land to longleaf pine forest or conduct pinesnake monitoring as a result of this designation. The final decision to designate critical habitat essential to the black pinesnake will be based on the best scientific information available.

Copies of the revised proposed critical habitat rule and associated documents, along with directions on how to submit comments and information are available at regulations.gov using docket No. FWS– R4-ES-2014-0065. All comments will be posted online.

People needing reasonable accommodations in order to attend and participate in the two public informational meetings should contact Stephen Ricks, Mississippi Ecological Services Field Office, at 601-321-1122, as soon as possible. Persons who use a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) may call the Federal Information Relay Service (FIRS) at 800-877-8339. In order to allow sufficient time to process requests, please call no later than one week before the meeting dates.

For more information, visit the frequently asked questions associated with this release.

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The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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