Q: What action is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking?
A: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is proposing to list the Florida Keys mole skink (Plestiodon egregius egregius) as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The proposal includes establishing critical habitat and a 4(d) rule that will tailor protections for the species and help support its conservation needs. The Service invites public comments on this proposed decision until Nov. 28, 2022.
Q: Why is the Service proposing a threatened listing?
A: The ESA describes two categories of species that need protection: threatened and endangered. An endangered animal or plant is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range; a threatened animal or plant is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. The Service has determined that the Florida Keys mole skink fits the definition of “threatened” as it is at risk of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future.
Q: What is the Florida Keys mole skink?
A: The Florida Keys mole skink reaches five inches long at most, with a slim, tan body and brightly tinted pinkish-red tail. Its tiny legs and five-toed feet propel it through the sandy shores of the Keys, burrowing under leaves, rocks and washed-up beach vegetation. They dine on roaches, spiders and crickets. Scientists believe mother skinks stay with their nests, licking and turning their eggs until they hatch. These secretive lizards are only found on 23 islands of the Florida Keys in Monroe County, Fla.
Q: Why is it threatened?
A: The Florida Keys mole skink is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future due primarily to threats associated with , specifically sea level rise, high tide flooding, and storm events. Florida Keys mole skink habitat is also at risk of loss and degradation due to land uses and human activities, such as land development, human population increase and the resulting disturbance, and beach erosion.
Q: Why is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposing to designate critical habitat for the Florida Keys mole skink?
A: Critical habitat, as defined by the ESA, is a specific geographic area that contains features essential to the conservation of a threatened or endangered species that may require special management and protection. Critical habitat may include areas that are not currently occupied by the species but are essential for its conservation.
Q: What is the proposed critical habitat?
A: We are proposing to designate approximately 7,067 acres in 19 units within the Florida Keys of Monroe County, Fla. as critical habitat for the Florida Keys mole skink. Of the 19 proposed units, 14 units totaling 6,522 acres are considered occupied, and 5 units totaling 545 acres are considered unoccupied (islands with recent and/or historical occurrence records but the current occupancy is unknown due to no or low survey effort). With 12 of 15 occupied areas predicted to be gone by 2060 due to sea level rise (Service 2022), areas of unoccupied habitat outside of its currently known area of occupancy are essential. These unoccupied units are considered essential because including only occupied areas would be inadequate to ensure the conservation of the species. At least a portion of every unoccupied unit is on Federal or State-owned lands where reintroductions could occur.
The proposed critical habitat designation includes lands under Federal (35 percent), State (45 percent), local (County, municipalities; 4 percent), private (13 percent), and other (unidentified ownership of suitable/non-suitable habitat (water or developed land that can be used by the skink as dispersal or connective corridors to suitable habitat) jurisdictions. There are no lands under Tribal ownership in the proposed designation. We have determined that approximately 158 acres of occupied habitat owned by the Department of Defense as part of the Naval Air Station Key West on Boca Chica Key and Key West are essential to the conservation of the Florida Keys mole skink but are exempt from critical habitat designation under section 4(a)(3) of the ESA. The Naval Air Station Key West has a current and approved Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan covering these areas that provides conservation and habitat management measures applicable to the subspecies.
Q: How do these proposed designations affect private landowners and developers?
A: Designating critical habitat under the ESA does not affect private landowners unless they implement an action involving federal funds, permits or activities. It does not affect land ownership, nor establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve or other , nor does it allow the government or public to access private lands. Federal agencies that undertake, fund or permit activities that could affect critical habitat must consult with the Service to make sure their actions do not adversely modify or destroy it.
Additionally, when determining these proposed critical habitat boundaries, the Service made every effort to avoid including large areas of agriculture or developed areas such as lands devoid of native vegetation or covered by buildings, pavement and other structures. Most of the proposed area is within conservation lands.
Q: Does critical habitat designation affect activities that occur within the designated area?
A: Critical habitat designation does not necessarily restrict activities, but federal agencies must make special efforts to protect the important characteristics of these areas. Only activities that involve a federal permit, license or funding, and are likely to destroy or adversely modify the area of critical habitat will be affected. If this is the case, the Service will work with the agency and, where appropriate, private or other landowners, to amend their project to allow it to proceed without adversely affecting the critical habitat. Thus, most federal projects are likely to go forward, but some will be modified to minimize harm to critical habitat.
Q: How did the Service determine what areas to designate as critical habitat?
A: Biologists considered physical and biological features the species needs for survival and reproduction. These include:
Space for individual and population growth and for normal behavior.
Cover or shelter.
Food, water, air, light, minerals or other nutritional or physiological requirements.
Sites for breeding, reproduction, rearing of offspring, germination, or seed dispersal.
Q: What does the draft economic analysis mean to private landowners in the area?
A: The draft economic analysis is comprehensive and considers the economic costs of adding this regulatory designation. It found that this rule is not expected to rise to the level of an economically “significant regulatory action,” as described in section 3(f)(1) of Executive Order (E.O.) 12866.
Q: What is the Section 4(d) rule?
A: For threatened species, the Service may use the flexibility provided under Section 4(d) of the ESA to tailor take prohibitions for the conservation of the species. This targeted approach helps reduce regulatory burdens by excepting from prohibitions certain activities that do not significantly harm the species, or that are beneficial, while focusing conservation efforts on the threats detrimental to recovery.
We have not identified any areas in the proposed rule that we are considering for exclusions under section 4(b)(2) of the ESA; however, we may identify areas in the final rule based on public comments or new information.
Q: What efforts have been made to help the Florida Keys mole skink?
A: The Florida Keys mole skink is listed in the State of Florida as “state-designated threatened,” and is protected against intentional harm, harassment, possession, or selling. In addition, the Florida’s Imperiled Species Management Plan created by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission addresses the conservation needs of multiple species through a comprehensive approach.
The management plans for federal and state-owned lands call for the protection and restoration of natural habitats and promote conservation efforts for listed species, which will benefit the skink. Monroe County implemented a Habitat Conservation Plan for Big Pine and No Name Keys in 2006, which requires development projects to fulfill the Habitat Conservation Plan's mitigation requirement of conserving native habitat such as pine rocklands.
Q: How do I submit comments on this proposal?
A: Visit the Federal eRulemaking Portal, and in the search box enter FWS-R4-ES-2022-0104, which is the docket number for this rulemaking. Comments must be received by Nov. 28, 2022. By hard copy, submit by U.S. mail or hand-delivery to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R4-ES-2022-0104; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: BPHC; 5275 Leesburg Pike; Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.
Comments should be sent only by the methods described above. The Service will post all comments on http://www.regulations.gov. This generally means that any personal information provided may be available to the public.
We must receive requests for a public hearing, in writing, at the address shown below by Nov. 14, 2022.
For further information contact Lourdes Mena, Classification and Recovery Division Manager, 904-731-3134, Florida Ecological Services Office, 7915 Baymeadows Way, Suite 200, Jacksonville, FL 32256-7517. Persons who use a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) may call the Federal Relay Service at 800–877–8339.
Q: What type of comments is the Service looking for? What’s the next step after the public comment period?
A: The Service seeks comments concerning the amount and distribution of Florida Keys mole skinks and their habitat, what may constitute physical or biological features essential to their conservation, and suitability of proposed areas for critical habitat. Additionally, we seek public comment on whether any specific areas we are proposing for critical habitat designation should be considered for exclusion under section 4(b)(2) of the ESA.
At the conclusion of the comment period, the agency will begin the process of reviewing the comments and decide whether to pursue this proposal in the form of a final rule.