Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge, 3878-3882 [06-616]

Download as PDF rmajette on PROD1PC67 with NOTICES1 3878 Federal Register / Vol. 71, No. 15 / Tuesday, January 24, 2006 / Notices documents (This is not a toll-free number). SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: The Department will submit the proposed information collection to OMB for review, as required by the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 (44 U.S.C. Chapter 35, as amended). This Notice is soliciting comments from members of the public and affected agencies concerning the proposed collection of information to: (1) Evaluate whether the proposed collection of information is necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the agency, including whether the information will have practical utility; (2) evaluate the accuracy of the agency’s estimate of the burden of the proposed collection of information; (3) enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected; and (4) minimize the burden of the collection of information on those who are to respond, including through the use of appropriate automated collection techniques or other forms of information technology; e.g., permitting electronic submission of responses. This Notice also lists the following information: Title of Proposal: Screening and Eviction for Drug Abuse and Other Criminal Activity—Final Rule. OMB Control Number: 2577–0232. Description of the need for the information and proposed use: The collection of information implements statute and gives Public Housing Agencies (PHAs) and assisted housing owners the tools for adopting and implementing fair, effective and comprehensive policies for screening out program applicants who engage in illegal drug use or other criminal activity and for evicting or terminating assistance of persons who engage in such activity. PHAs that administer a Section 8 or public housing program under an Annual Contributions Contract (ACC) with HUD may request criminal history records from any law enforcement agency concerning an adult member of a household applying for admission to a public housing or Section 8 program. Agency form numbers, if applicable: None. Members of affected public: State or Local Government; Public Housing Agencies (PHAs). Estimation of the total number of hours needed to prepare the information collection including number of respondents, frequency of response, and hours of response: 3,300 PHAs (respondents); estimated average number of respondents 15,200; total annual burden hours 73,550. VerDate Aug<31>2005 14:44 Jan 23, 2006 Jkt 208001 Status of the proposed information collection: Extension. Authority: Section 3506 of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, 44 U.S.C. Chapter 35, as amended. Dated: January 18, 2006. Bessy Kong, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Policy, Program and Legislative Initiatives. [FR Doc. E6–819 Filed 1–23–06; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 4210–33–P DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR Fish and Wildlife Service Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior. ACTION: Notice of Availability of the Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Assessment for Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge in Choctaw County, Alabama. AGENCY: SUMMARY: The Fish and Wildlife Service announces that a Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Assessment for Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge are available for review and comment. The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, as amended by the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, requires the Service to develop a comprehensive conservation plan for each national wildlife refuge. The purpose in developing a comprehensive conservation plan is to provide refuge manages with a 15-year strategy 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 Service policies, In addition to outlining broad management direction on conserving wildlife and their habitats, plans identify wildlifedependent recreational opportunities available to the public, including opportunities for hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, wildlife photography, and environmental education and interpretation. Significant issues addressed in the draft plan include: threatened and endangered species, waterfowl management, neotropical migratory birds, bottomland hardwood restoration, fisheries management, visitor services, funding and staffing, cultural resources, and land protection. DATES: A meeting will be held to present the plan to the public. Mailings, newspaper articles, and posters will be PO 00000 Frm 00064 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 the avenues to inform the public of the date and time for the meeting. Individuals wishing to comment on the Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Assessment for Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge should do so no later than March 10, 2006. Requests for copies of the Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Assessment should be addressed to Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge, P.O. Box 808, Jackson, Alabama 36545; Telephone 251/246– 3583. The plan and environmental assessment may also be accessed and downloaded from the Service’s Internet Web site http://southeast.fws.gov/ planning/. Comments on the draft plan may be submitted to the above address or via electronic mail to mike_dawson@fws.gov. Please include your name and return address in your Internet message. Our practice is to make comments, including names and home addresses of respondents, available for public review during regular business hours. Individual respondents may request that we withhold their home addresses from the record, which we will honor to the extent allowed by law. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: The Service developed four alternatives for managing the refuge and chose Alternative D as the preferred alternative. ADDRESSES: Alternatives The draft comprehensive conservation plan and environmental assessment evaluates the four alternatives for managing the refuge over the next 15 years. These alternatives are briefly described as follows: Alternative A: No Action (Current Management Direction) Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge’s most important terrestrial vegetation community is its bottomland hardwood forests, which provide habitat for migratory birds, including both waterfowl and neotropical migratory forest-dependent birds, and other species. The refuge has a current Forest Management Plan, but it has not been fully implemented; some stand treatments have been applied, but secondary treatments, such as thinnings, have not. Regeneration is occurring on the forest floor, but not stand recruitment; saplings are not maturing due to being eaten by deer and feral hogs, frequent flooding, and shady conditions. There is a dense canopy at present that inhibits regeneration of all but the most shade-tolerant trees. While E:\FR\FM\24JAN1.SGM 24JAN1 rmajette on PROD1PC67 with NOTICES1 Federal Register / Vol. 71, No. 15 / Tuesday, January 24, 2006 / Notices mast production is a good at present, it will probably decrease over the long term as oaks become over-mature and are not replaced by younger, more vigorous and productive oaks. Backwaters, sloughs, and wetlands on the refuge are gradually filling in with sediments, a natural process of ecological succession that has been accelerated by human activity, namely the Coffeeville Dam and Reservoir standing water, in which sediments drop out and accumulate. This longterm process will continue under the Current Management Direction Alternative. The main aquatic invasive species on the refuge at present are hydrilla, alligator weed, and water hyacinth; the potential exists for additional species to become problematic, as is giant salvinia. Major infestation by aquatic invasives of virtually all water bodies at present are displacing native aquatic/wetland plants and can exacerbate siltation. This, in turn, degrades fish habitat, including raising water temperature and reducing dissolved oxygen. There are also significant effects on water-based recreation and waterfowl habitat. At present, 75 acres of backwater slough emergents per year are treated with herbicides and this will continue under this alternative. To a lesser extent, biological controls will also continue to be used. Invasive terrestrial plants and animals on the refuge include cogongrass and feral hogs. Cogongrass is sprayed annually. Feral hogs are in incidental species, which can be taken during other refuge hunts. The staff conducts limited trapping of these animals on the refuge. A recent reduction in the refuge’s population of feral hogs appears to be due to off-refuge trapping by one or more neighboring landowners. Under the Current Management Direction Alternative, there will continue to be limited trapping and incidental hunting of feral hogs on the refuge. As mentioned above, the refuge’s bottomland hardwood forests provide important habitat for waterfowl and neotropical migratory birds, as well as resident wildlife. In addition, the refuge actively manages habitat for migratory birds by means of force-account farming (35 acres) and moist-soil management (15 acres at present). Under the Current Management Direction Alternative, these acreages will not change. The refuge also assists in the reproduction of the wood duck by providing 400 nest boxes; these are cleaned once annually. Staff members monitor them and collect nesting data. Two federally listed species—the bald eagle and the wood stork—are VerDate Aug<31>2005 14:44 Jan 23, 2006 Jkt 208001 documented as occurring on the refuge. Two active bald eagle nests are located on the refuge; these are protected by sanctuaries that involve some restriction of public access by boaters, anglers, hunters, and other refuge users. Wood storks are observed occasionally during the summer. This is a population that nests in Florida and migrates north after the nesting season. With regard to resource protection, the Corps of Engineers has limited funds for dredging areas of the refuge that have been filling in with sediments. The Service’s Daphne, Alabama, Ecological Services Office has contaminants specialists who, in the past, have conducted contaminants surveys but these are now dated and no complete surveys have ever been conducted. Oil and gas rights on the refuge are outstanding, and production necessitates communication and cooperation with oil/gas companies to reduce above-ground impacts and disturbance, as well as to avoid, minimize, and mitigate spills and contamination. The principal public use on the refuge is fishing, which is regulated by the State of Alabama. Both bank fishing and boat fishing are available. Concerns have been expressed by the public about declining quality of the fishing experience, mainly because of degraded aquatic habitat from invasives and reduced access to potential fishing areas that have been rendered impenetrable due to emergent weedy vegetation. The Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries conducts periodic creel and angler surveys. Secondary public uses on the refuge are hunting and wildlife observation. There is one wildlife observation platform, next to the moist-soil units. There is a 0.5-mile loop interpretive trail near the platform. Other forest roads permit foot travel, but access is difficult (only by boat). Current refuge hunts include an archery hunt for deer, and a small game season for squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons. There is no waterfowl hunting. The same public access and use under this alternative would continue; to gain access to many areas is by boat only from the reservoir. The staff works with private land owners of approximately eight Farm Service Agency tracts to restore bottomland hardwood forests (i.e., planting oak trees) on easement areas. Isolation of the refuge itself from the refuge headquarters—45 minutes to 1 hour away by road—inhibits hands-on refuge management; for example, there is no law enforcement, biological, forestry, or management presence on the refuge half of the time. The refuge itself PO 00000 Frm 00065 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 3879 is remote, and frequent flooding makes much of it inaccessible for much of year. This isolation and seasonal inaccessibility will continue under the Current Management Direction Alternative. The current number of staff at the refuge is four: The refuge manager and an office assistant are located at the headquarters in Jackson, Alabama, and two maintenance workers are located on the refuge itself. As a result of staffing and budgetary limitations, there are limited data on wildlife and habitat distributions and trends, which inhibits the quantification of management objectives. Alternative B. Enhanced Wildlife/ Fisheries and Habitat Management Under Alternative B, the refuge would update and fully implement its Forest Management Plan. Some tree harvest removal would be necessary to achieve understory and midstory conditions, with an emphasis on regeneration of bottomland hardwood oaks and other mast-bearing trees. As feasible, the Service would work with the Corps of Engineers to help adjust hydrological periods so that summer flooding occurs at fewer intervals and for shorter periods. The reason is to not kill oak trees and stymie oak regeneration. With regard to backwaters, sloughs, and wetlands filling in with sediments, this alternative would use aerial and GPS/GIS techniques to document current colonization by plants and sedimentation trends over time. Aquatic invasive species would be kept under control via cooperative agreements with the Corps of Engineers and the State of Alabama. The refuge would initiate discussions with the Corps to reduce impacts of too-frequent inundation by the Coffeeville Dam and Reservoir and with the State to utilize approved methods of controlling invasive aquatic plants, which help trap sediments and worsen the problem. The result would be more effective control and reduced severity of infestations and slower sedimentation of refuge waters. Cogongrass would be sprayed annually with the objective being to eradicate this exotic invasive species. The refuge would investigate replacing cogongrass on one bank it now infests, which provides ground cover to avoid erosion, with a native plant species. Programs like the State Landowner Incentive Program may offer funding or technical support that could be used in private lands habitat and wildlife management, including control of problem species, such as feral hogs. Partners for Fish and Wildlife is another E:\FR\FM\24JAN1.SGM 24JAN1 rmajette on PROD1PC67 with NOTICES1 3880 Federal Register / Vol. 71, No. 15 / Tuesday, January 24, 2006 / Notices program that might offer support to the refuge. Alternative B would provide habitat for migratory birds, including waterfowl and neotropical, by using force-account farming (e.g., millet and grain sorghum) and intensified moist-soil management. Staff would level and regrade moist-soil units to facilitate water management; in addition, the area of moist soil would be increased to 25–35 acres by converting existing crop fields. Over the 15-year life of the plan, all crop fields would be phased out and transitioned to moistsoil units. Under this alternative, staff would maintain the existing stock of 400 wood duck nest boxes, but more intensively monitor and collect nesting data from them. Each nest box would be cleaned at least twice annually, from once annually at present. Two active bald eagle nests are on the refuge and would remain active under Alternative B. They would continue to be protected by sanctuaries that involve some restriction of public access by boaters, anglers, hunters, and other refuge visitors. It is assumed that wood storks would continue to be observed occasionally during the summer, as in the Current Management Direction Alternative. Under the Enhanced Wildlife/Fisheries and Habitat Management Alternative, the Service would investigate the movements of these wood storks via a radio telemetry study. The refuge would obtain the assistance of contaminants specialists at the Service’s Daphne, Alabama, Ecological Services Office to conduct contaminants surveys on the refuge to update information on key toxic contaminants, such as mercury and other heavy metals, pesticides, and salt water. Oil and gas production on the refuge would continue under Alternative B, necessitating communication and cooperation with oil companies to reduce above-ground impacts and disturbance, as well as to avoid, minimize, and mitigate spills and contamination. The principal wildlife-dependent recreation under the Enhanced Wildlife/ Fisheries and Habitat Management Alternative would continue to be fishing, regulated by the State of Alabama. Both bank and boat fishing would be available. The State would conduct periodic creel and angler surveys, as it does at present. Improved aquatic habitat management would aim to increase fish populations and angler access. This alternative would explore stump removal to improve both fisheries habitat and boat access. VerDate Aug<31>2005 14:44 Jan 23, 2006 Jkt 208001 Secondary public uses would continue to be hunting and wildlife observation. There would be one wildlife observation platform, next to the moist-soil units, as at present, and a 0.5-mile loop interpretive trail near the platform. Other forest roads would permit foot travel, but overall access would remain difficult (only by boat). Under Alternative B, the Service would look to build a bridge across the mouth of Okatuppa Creek to facilitate management access; this bridge would also be accessible to public foot travel. Refuge hunts would include those held currently: an archery hunt for deer, and a small game season for squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons. No waterfowl hunting would be permitted. Feral hogs would be considered incidental species and could be taken during all refuge hunts. The same public access and use under this alternative would continue; to gain access to many areas would remain only by boat from the reservoir. The staff would continue to monitor habitat restoration of approximately eight Farm Service Agency tracts planted in bottomland hardwood forests. Under the Enhanced Wildlife/ Fisheries and Habitat Management Alternative, isolation of the refuge itself from refuge headquarters would continue to inhibit hands-on management. The remoteness of the refuge would not change, and frequent flooding would continue to render much of it inaccessible for much of the year. One assistant refuge manager with law enforcement collateral duty would be added, as well as one wildlife biologist. The refuge would investigate sharing a forester with other refuges. Recommended staffing would consist of a refuge manager, assistant refuge manager, and office assistant at the refuge headquarters, and a biologist and two maintenance workers on the refuge itself. Alternative C. Enhanced WildlifeDependent Recreation Under Alternative C, the refuge’s existing Forest Management Plan, which has not been fully implemented, would continue in effect, but again would not be fully implemented. Some stand treatments would be applied, but secondary treatments (thinnings) would not. Regeneration would occur on the forest floor, but stand recruitment would continue to lag. Most saplings would not mature because of heavy foraging pressure by white-tailed deer and feral hogs, frequent flooding, and shady conditions. A dense canopy would continue to inhibit regeneration PO 00000 Frm 00066 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 of all but the most shade-tolerant trees. At first, mast production would remain high, but would probably decrease over the long term (i.e., beyond the 15-year life of the comprehensive conservation plan) as oaks become over-mature and are not replaced by younger, more vigorous and productive oaks. Backwaters, sloughs, and wetlands on the refuge would continue gradually filling in with sediments, a natural process of ecological succession that has been accelerated by human activity, namely the Coffeeville Dam and Reservoir’s standing water, in which sediments drop out and accumulate. This long-term process would continue under the Enhanced Wildlife-Dependent Recreation Alternative. Although the main aquatic invasive species on the refuge are hydrilla, alligator weed, and water hyacinth at present, the potential exists for additional species to become problematic, such as giant salvinia. Major infestation by aquatic invasives of virtually all waterbodies at present are displacing native aquatic/wetland plants like giant bulrush and can exacerbate siltation. This, in turn, degrades fish habitat, including raiding water temperature and reducing dissolved oxygen. There are also significant effects on water-based recreation and waterfowl habitat. At present, 75 acres of backwater slough emergents per year are treated with herbicides and this would continue under this alternative. To a lesser extent, biological controls would also continue to be used. There would be no change in the management of invasive terrestrial plants and animals on the refuge under this alternative from the Current Management Direction Alternative. The refuge would continue to actively manage habitat for migratory birds by means of force-account farming and moist-soil management. Under this alternative, the acreages would not change from the acreages being farmed under the Current Management Direction Alternative. The refuge would continue to assist in the reproduction of the wood duck by providing 400 nest boxes and managing as is currently being done. Management of two federally listed species—bald eagle and wood stork— would remain the same as under the Current Management Direction Alternative. With regard to resource protection, the Corps of Engineers has limited funds for dredging areas of the refuge that have been filling in with sediments. The Service’s Daphne, Alabama, Ecological Services Office has contaminants E:\FR\FM\24JAN1.SGM 24JAN1 rmajette on PROD1PC67 with NOTICES1 Federal Register / Vol. 71, No. 15 / Tuesday, January 24, 2006 / Notices specialists who, in the past, have conducted contaminants surveys but these are now dated and no complete surveys have ever been conducted. Oil and gas rights on the refuge are outstanding, and production necessitates communication and cooperation with oil/gas companies to reduce above-ground impacts and disturbance, as well as to avoid, minimize, and mitigate spills and contamination. Refuge staff would continue to work with private landowners on approximately eight Farm Service tracts to restore bottomland hardwood forests on easement areas. Under Alternative C, the principal wildlife-dependent recreation would remain fishing, regulated by the State. Both bank and boat fishing would be available. The State would continue to conduct periodic creel and angler surveys. Within five years of the comprehensive conservation plan’s approval, the refuge would build new fishing facilities, such as a handicapped accessible fishing pier. It would also provide additional woody structure within the reservoir, and open boating access via stump removal and increased aquatic vegetation control. Secondary public uses would continue to be hunting and wildlife observation in the Enhanced WildlifeDependent Recreation Alternative. This alternative would also offer an improved wildlife observation platform, next to the moist-soil units. The Service would seek to build a pedestrian bridge over the mouth of Okatuppa Creek to facilitate and improve access to Middle Swamp. Refuge hunts would include an archery hunt for deer, and small game season for squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons. A waterfowl hunt for youths would be added, contingent upon having staffing resources to manage the hunt. Feral hogs would be considered an incidental species and could be taken during all refuge hunts. The same public access and use would continue under this alternative; to gain access to many areas would remain by boat only from the reservoir. More environmental education opportunities both on and off the refuge would be pursued. Isolation of the refuge from its headquarters would continue to inhibit hands-on management. Alternative C would add one assistant refuge manager with law enforcement collateral duty, as well as one park ranger. Recommended staffing would then be six: Refuge manager, assistant refuge manager, and office assistant at refuge headquarters, and a park ranger and two maintenance workers on the refuge. VerDate Aug<31>2005 14:44 Jan 23, 2006 Jkt 208001 Alternative D. Enhanced Wildlife/ Fisheries, Habitat, and Public Use (Preferred Alternative) Under Alternative D, the refuge would update and fully implement its Forest Management Plan. Some tree harvest removal would be necessary to achieve understory and midstory conditions, with an emphasis on regeneration of bottomland hardwood oaks and other mast-bearing trees. As feasible, the Service would work with the Corps of Engineers to adjust hydrological periods so that summer flooding occurs at fewer intervals and for shorter periods. This would avoid oak seedling mortality that now thwarts oak regeneration. With regard to the refuge backwaters, sloughs, and wetlands now filling in with sediments, Alternative D would utilize aerial and GPS/GIS techniques to document current colonization by plants and sedimentation trends over time. Aquatic invasive species would be kept under control via cooperative agreements with the Corps of Engineers and the State of Alabama. The refuge would initiate discussions with the Corps to reduce impacts of too-frequent inundation by the Coffeeville Dam and Reservoir, and with the State to utilize approved methods of controlling invasive aquatic plants, which help trap sediments and worsen the problem. The result would be more effective control and reduced severity of infestations and slower sedimentation of refuge waters. Cogongrass would be sprayed annually with the objective being to eradicate this exotic invasive species. The refuge would investigate replacing cogongrass on one bank it now infests, which provides ground cover to avoid erosion, with a native plant species. Programs like the State Landowner Incentive Program may offer funding or technical support that could be used in private lands habitat and wildlife management, including control of problem species like feral hogs. Another possibility that the refuge would explore using is the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. Alternative D would provide habitat for migratory birds, including waterfowl and neotropical migratory birds, by using force-account farming (e.g., millet and grain sorghum) and intensified moist-soil management. Staff would level and regrade moist-soil units to facilitate water management; in addition, the area of moist soil would be increased to 25–35 acres by converting existing crop fields. Over the 15-year life of the comprehensive conservation plan, all crop fields would be phased out and transitioned to moist-soil units. PO 00000 Frm 00067 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 3881 Under this alternative, staff would maintain the existing stock of 400 wood duck nest boxes, but more intensively monitor and collect nesting data from them. Each nest box would be cleaned at least twice annually (from once annually at present). Two active bald eagle nests are on the refuge and would remain active under Alternative D. They would continue to be protected by sanctuaries that involve some restriction of public access by boaters, anglers, hunters and other refuge visitors. It is assumed that wood storks would continue to be observed occasionally during the summer, as in the Current Management Direction Alternative. Under Alternative D, the Service would investigate the movements of these wood storks via a radio telemetry study. Under the preferred alternative only, the refuge would request the assistance of contaminants specialists form the Service’s Daphane, Alabama, Ecological Services Office to conduct complete contaminants surveys on the refuge to update information on the status of key toxic contaminants, such as mercury and other heavy metals, pesticides, and salt water. Oil and gas production on the refuge would continue, necessitating communication and cooperation with oil companies to reduce above-ground impacts and disturbance, as well as to avoid, minimize, and mitigate spills and contamination. Under Alternative D, the principal wildlife-dependent recreation would remain fishing, regulated by the State of Alabama. Both bank and boat fishing would be available. The State would continue to conduct periodic creel and angler surveys. Within 5 years of approval of the comprehensive conservation plan, the refuge would build new fishing facilities, such as a handicapped accessible fishing pier. It would also provide additional woody structure within the reservoir, and open boating access via stump removal and increased aquatic vegetation control. Secondary public uses would continue to be hunting and wildlife observation as in the Enhanced Wildlife-Dependent Recreation Alternative. This alternative would also offer an improved wildlife observation platform, next to the moist-soil units. The Service would seek to build a pedestrian bridge over the mouth of Okatuppa Creek to facilitate and improve access to Middle Swamp. Refuge hunts would include an archery hunt for deer, and a small game season for squirrels, rabbits and raccoons. A waterfowl hunt for youths would be added, contingent on having staffing resources to manage the hunt. The same E:\FR\FM\24JAN1.SGM 24JAN1 3882 Federal Register / Vol. 71, No. 15 / Tuesday, January 24, 2006 / Notices public access and use under this alternative would continue; to gain access to many areas would remain by boat only from the reservoir. Many more environmental education opportunities both on and off the refuge would be pursued. Even under Alternative D, isolation of the refuge from its headquarters would continue to hamper hands-on refuge management. The alternative would add one assistant refuge manager with law enforcement collateral duty, and one wildlife biologist with visitor services collateral duty; and would also investigate sharing a forester with other refuges. Recommended staffing would be six: Refuge manager, assistant refuge manager, and office assistant at refuge headquarters, and a biologist and two maintenance workers on the refuge. Authority: This notice is published under the authority of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, Public Law 105–57. Dated: July 25, 2005. Linda H. Kelsey, Acting Regional Director. [FR Doc. 06–616 Filed 1–23–06; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 4310–55–M DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR Fish and Wildlife Service Proposed Programmatic Statewide Red-cockaded Woodpecker Safe Harbor Agreement, Florida Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior. ACTION: Notice of permit application. rmajette on PROD1PC67 with NOTICES1 AGENCY: SUMMARY: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWC or Applicant) has applied to the Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) for an enhancement of survival permit (ESP) pursuant to section 10(a)(1)(A) of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act) (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.). The ESP application includes a proposed Safe Harbor Agreement (Agreement) for the endangered redcockaded woodpecker, (Picoides borealis) (RCW), for a period of 99 years. If approved, the Agreement would allow the Applicant to issue Certificates of Inclusion (CI) throughout the State of Florida to eligible non-Federal landowners that complete an approved Safe Harbor Management Agreement (SHMA). We announce the opening of a 30-day comment period and request comments from the public on the Applicant’s ESP application; the accompanying proposed Agreement, and the VerDate Aug<31>2005 14:44 Jan 23, 2006 Jkt 208001 supporting Environmental Action Statement (EAS) Screening Form. All comments received, including names and addresses, will become part of the official administrative record and may be made available to the public, subject to the requirements of the Privacy Act and Freedom of Information Act. For further information and instructions on reviewing and commenting on this application, see the ADDRESSES section, below. DATES: Written comments should be received on or before February 23, 2006. ADDRESSES: You may obtain a copy of the information available by contacting the Service’s Regional Safe Harbor Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1875 Century Boulevard, Suite 200, Atlanta, Georgia 30345, or Field Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ecological Services Field Office, 1601 Balboa Avenue, Panama City, Florida 32405. Alternatively, you may set up an appointment to view these documents at either location during normal business hours. Written data or comments should be submitted to the Atlanta, Georgia, Regional Office. Requests for the documentation must be in writing to be processed, and comments must be in writing to be considered. When you are requesting or reviewing the information provided in this notice, please reference ‘‘Proposed Programmatic Statewide Red-cockaded Woodpecker Safe Harbor Agreement, Florida’’ in any correspondence. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Mr. Richard Gooch, Regional Safe Harbor Program Coordinator at the Service’s Southeast Regional Office (see ADDRESSES above), telephone (404) 679– 7124; or Mr. Stan Simpkins, Ecologist, Panama City Ecological Services Field Office (see ADDRESSES above), telephone (850) 769–0552. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: Primary threats to the RCW throughout its range all have the same basic cause: lack of suitable habitat. To help address this threat, the Service has previously entered into programmatic Safe Harbor Agreements in Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina. These previous agreements are similar to the Agreement that is being proposed by FFWC. Under a Safe Harbor Agreement, participating property owners voluntarily undertake management activities on their property to enhance, restore, or maintain habitat benefiting species listed under the Act. Safe Harbor Agreements encourage private and other non-Federal property owners to implement conservation efforts for listed species by assuring property owners they will not be subjected to PO 00000 Frm 00068 Fmt 4703 Sfmt 4703 increased property use restrictions if their efforts attract listed species to their property or increase the numbers or distribution of listed species already on their property. Application requirements and issuance criteria for ESPs through Safe Harbor Agreements are found in 50 CFR 17.22 and 17.32. The FFWCs proposed state-wide Agreement is designed to encourage voluntary RCW habitat restoration or enhancement activities by relieving a landowner who enters into a landowner-specific agreement (the SHMA) from any additional responsibility under the Act beyond that which exists at the time he or she enters into the program. The SHMA will identify any existing RCWs and any associated habitat (the baseline) and will describe the actions that the landowner commits to take (e.g., hardwood midstory removal, cavity provisioning, prescribed burning, etc.) or will allow to be taken to improve RCW habitat on the property, and the time period within which those actions are to be taken and maintained. A participating landowner must maintain the baseline on his/her property (i.e., any existing RCW groups and/or associated habitat), but may be allowed the opportunity to incidentally take RCWs at some point in the future if above baseline RCWs are attracted to that site by the proactive management measures undertaken by the landowner. It is important to note that the Agreement does not envision, nor will it authorize, incidental take of any preSHMA existing RCW group with one exception. This exception is incidental take related to a baseline shift; in this circumstance the baseline will be maintained but redrawn or shifted on that landowner’s property. Among the minimization measures proposed by the Applicant are no incidental take of RCWs during the breeding season, consolidation of small, isolated RCW populations at sites capable of supporting a viable RCW population, and measures to improve current and potential habitat for the species. Further details on the topics described above are found in the aforementioned documents available for review under this notice. The geographic scope of the Applicant’s Agreement is the entire State of Florida, but the Agreement would only authorize the future incidental take of above-baseline RCW groups on lands for which a CI has been issued. Lands potentially eligible for inclusion include all privately owned lands and public lands owned by cities, counties, and municipalities, with potentially suitable RCW habitat in Florida. E:\FR\FM\24JAN1.SGM 24JAN1

Agencies

[Federal Register Volume 71, Number 15 (Tuesday, January 24, 2006)]
[Notices]
[Pages 3878-3882]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 06-616]


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DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR

Fish and Wildlife Service


Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior.

ACTION: Notice of Availability of the Draft Comprehensive Conservation 
Plan and Environmental Assessment for Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge 
in Choctaw County, Alabama.

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SUMMARY: The Fish and Wildlife Service announces that a Draft 
Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Assessment for 
Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge are available for review and comment. 
The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, as 
amended by the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, 
requires the Service to develop a comprehensive conservation plan for 
each national wildlife refuge. The purpose in developing a 
comprehensive conservation plan is to provide refuge manages with a 15-
year strategy 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 Service policies, In addition to outlining broad 
management direction on conserving wildlife and their habitats, plans 
identify wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities available to the 
public, including opportunities for hunting, fishing, wildlife 
observation, wildlife photography, and environmental education and 
interpretation.
    Significant issues addressed in the draft plan include: threatened 
and endangered species, waterfowl management, neotropical migratory 
birds, bottomland hardwood restoration, fisheries management, visitor 
services, funding and staffing, cultural resources, and land 
protection.

DATES: A meeting will be held to present the plan to the public. 
Mailings, newspaper articles, and posters will be the avenues to inform 
the public of the date and time for the meeting. Individuals wishing to 
comment on the Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental 
Assessment for Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge should do so no later 
than March 10, 2006.

ADDRESSES: Requests for copies of the Draft Comprehensive Conservation 
Plan and Environmental Assessment should be addressed to Choctaw 
National Wildlife Refuge, P.O. Box 808, Jackson, Alabama 36545; 
Telephone 251/246-3583. The plan and environmental assessment may also 
be accessed and downloaded from the Service's Internet Web site http://
southeast.fws.gov/planning/. Comments on the draft plan may be 
submitted to the above address or via electronic mail to mike_
dawson@fws.gov. Please include your name and return address in your 
Internet message. Our practice is to make comments, including names and 
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the extent allowed by law.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: The Service developed four alternatives for 
managing the refuge and chose Alternative D as the preferred 
alternative.

Alternatives

    The draft comprehensive conservation plan and environmental 
assessment evaluates the four alternatives for managing the refuge over 
the next 15 years. These alternatives are briefly described as follows:

Alternative A: No Action (Current Management Direction)

    Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge's most important terrestrial 
vegetation community is its bottomland hardwood forests, which provide 
habitat for migratory birds, including both waterfowl and neotropical 
migratory forest-dependent birds, and other species. The refuge has a 
current Forest Management Plan, but it has not been fully implemented; 
some stand treatments have been applied, but secondary treatments, such 
as thinnings, have not. Regeneration is occurring on the forest floor, 
but not stand recruitment; saplings are not maturing due to being eaten 
by deer and feral hogs, frequent flooding, and shady conditions. There 
is a dense canopy at present that inhibits regeneration of all but the 
most shade-tolerant trees. While

[[Page 3879]]

mast production is a good at present, it will probably decrease over 
the long term as oaks become over-mature and are not replaced by 
younger, more vigorous and productive oaks.
    Backwaters, sloughs, and wetlands on the refuge are gradually 
filling in with sediments, a natural process of ecological succession 
that has been accelerated by human activity, namely the Coffeeville Dam 
and Reservoir standing water, in which sediments drop out and 
accumulate. This long-term process will continue under the Current 
Management Direction Alternative.
    The main aquatic invasive species on the refuge at present are 
hydrilla, alligator weed, and water hyacinth; the potential exists for 
additional species to become problematic, as is giant salvinia. Major 
infestation by aquatic invasives of virtually all water bodies at 
present are displacing native aquatic/wetland plants and can exacerbate 
siltation. This, in turn, degrades fish habitat, including raising 
water temperature and reducing dissolved oxygen. There are also 
significant effects on water-based recreation and waterfowl habitat. At 
present, 75 acres of backwater slough emergents per year are treated 
with herbicides and this will continue under this alternative. To a 
lesser extent, biological controls will also continue to be used.
    Invasive terrestrial plants and animals on the refuge include 
cogongrass and feral hogs. Cogongrass is sprayed annually. Feral hogs 
are in incidental species, which can be taken during other refuge 
hunts. The staff conducts limited trapping of these animals on the 
refuge. A recent reduction in the refuge's population of feral hogs 
appears to be due to off-refuge trapping by one or more neighboring 
landowners. Under the Current Management Direction Alternative, there 
will continue to be limited trapping and incidental hunting of feral 
hogs on the refuge.
    As mentioned above, the refuge's bottomland hardwood forests 
provide important habitat for waterfowl and neotropical migratory 
birds, as well as resident wildlife. In addition, the refuge actively 
manages habitat for migratory birds by means of force-account farming 
(35 acres) and moist-soil management (15 acres at present). Under the 
Current Management Direction Alternative, these acreages will not 
change. The refuge also assists in the reproduction of the wood duck by 
providing 400 nest boxes; these are cleaned once annually. Staff 
members monitor them and collect nesting data.
    Two federally listed species--the bald eagle and the wood stork--
are documented as occurring on the refuge. Two active bald eagle nests 
are located on the refuge; these are protected by sanctuaries that 
involve some restriction of public access by boaters, anglers, hunters, 
and other refuge users. Wood storks are observed occasionally during 
the summer. This is a population that nests in Florida and migrates 
north after the nesting season.
    With regard to resource protection, the Corps of Engineers has 
limited funds for dredging areas of the refuge that have been filling 
in with sediments. The Service's Daphne, Alabama, Ecological Services 
Office has contaminants specialists who, in the past, have conducted 
contaminants surveys but these are now dated and no complete surveys 
have ever been conducted. Oil and gas rights on the refuge are 
outstanding, and production necessitates communication and cooperation 
with oil/gas companies to reduce above-ground impacts and disturbance, 
as well as to avoid, minimize, and mitigate spills and contamination.
    The principal public use on the refuge is fishing, which is 
regulated by the State of Alabama. Both bank fishing and boat fishing 
are available. Concerns have been expressed by the public about 
declining quality of the fishing experience, mainly because of degraded 
aquatic habitat from invasives and reduced access to potential fishing 
areas that have been rendered impenetrable due to emergent weedy 
vegetation. The Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries 
conducts periodic creel and angler surveys.
    Secondary public uses on the refuge are hunting and wildlife 
observation. There is one wildlife observation platform, next to the 
moist-soil units. There is a 0.5-mile loop interpretive trail near the 
platform. Other forest roads permit foot travel, but access is 
difficult (only by boat). Current refuge hunts include an archery hunt 
for deer, and a small game season for squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons. 
There is no waterfowl hunting. The same public access and use under 
this alternative would continue; to gain access to many areas is by 
boat only from the reservoir.
    The staff works with private land owners of approximately eight 
Farm Service Agency tracts to restore bottomland hardwood forests 
(i.e., planting oak trees) on easement areas.
    Isolation of the refuge itself from the refuge headquarters--45 
minutes to 1 hour away by road--inhibits hands-on refuge management; 
for example, there is no law enforcement, biological, forestry, or 
management presence on the refuge half of the time. The refuge itself 
is remote, and frequent flooding makes much of it inaccessible for much 
of year. This isolation and seasonal inaccessibility will continue 
under the Current Management Direction Alternative.
    The current number of staff at the refuge is four: The refuge 
manager and an office assistant are located at the headquarters in 
Jackson, Alabama, and two maintenance workers are located on the refuge 
itself. As a result of staffing and budgetary limitations, there are 
limited data on wildlife and habitat distributions and trends, which 
inhibits the quantification of management objectives.

Alternative B. Enhanced Wildlife/Fisheries and Habitat Management

    Under Alternative B, the refuge would update and fully implement 
its Forest Management Plan. Some tree harvest removal would be 
necessary to achieve understory and midstory conditions, with an 
emphasis on regeneration of bottomland hardwood oaks and other mast-
bearing trees. As feasible, the Service would work with the Corps of 
Engineers to help adjust hydrological periods so that summer flooding 
occurs at fewer intervals and for shorter periods. The reason is to not 
kill oak trees and stymie oak regeneration.
    With regard to backwaters, sloughs, and wetlands filling in with 
sediments, this alternative would use aerial and GPS/GIS techniques to 
document current colonization by plants and sedimentation trends over 
time. Aquatic invasive species would be kept under control via 
cooperative agreements with the Corps of Engineers and the State of 
Alabama. The refuge would initiate discussions with the Corps to reduce 
impacts of too-frequent inundation by the Coffeeville Dam and Reservoir 
and with the State to utilize approved methods of controlling invasive 
aquatic plants, which help trap sediments and worsen the problem. The 
result would be more effective control and reduced severity of 
infestations and slower sedimentation of refuge waters.
    Cogongrass would be sprayed annually with the objective being to 
eradicate this exotic invasive species. The refuge would investigate 
replacing cogongrass on one bank it now infests, which provides ground 
cover to avoid erosion, with a native plant species. Programs like the 
State Landowner Incentive Program may offer funding or technical 
support that could be used in private lands habitat and wildlife 
management, including control of problem species, such as feral hogs. 
Partners for Fish and Wildlife is another

[[Page 3880]]

program that might offer support to the refuge.
    Alternative B would provide habitat for migratory birds, including 
waterfowl and neotropical, by using force-account farming (e.g., millet 
and grain sorghum) and intensified moist-soil management. Staff would 
level and regrade moist-soil units to facilitate water management; in 
addition, the area of moist soil would be increased to 25-35 acres by 
converting existing crop fields. Over the 15-year life of the plan, all 
crop fields would be phased out and transitioned to moist-soil units.
    Under this alternative, staff would maintain the existing stock of 
400 wood duck nest boxes, but more intensively monitor and collect 
nesting data from them. Each nest box would be cleaned at least twice 
annually, from once annually at present.
    Two active bald eagle nests are on the refuge and would remain 
active under Alternative B. They would continue to be protected by 
sanctuaries that involve some restriction of public access by boaters, 
anglers, hunters, and other refuge visitors. It is assumed that wood 
storks would continue to be observed occasionally during the summer, as 
in the Current Management Direction Alternative. Under the Enhanced 
Wildlife/Fisheries and Habitat Management Alternative, the Service 
would investigate the movements of these wood storks via a radio 
telemetry study.
    The refuge would obtain the assistance of contaminants specialists 
at the Service's Daphne, Alabama, Ecological Services Office to conduct 
contaminants surveys on the refuge to update information on key toxic 
contaminants, such as mercury and other heavy metals, pesticides, and 
salt water. Oil and gas production on the refuge would continue under 
Alternative B, necessitating communication and cooperation with oil 
companies to reduce above-ground impacts and disturbance, as well as to 
avoid, minimize, and mitigate spills and contamination.
    The principal wildlife-dependent recreation under the Enhanced 
Wildlife/Fisheries and Habitat Management Alternative would continue to 
be fishing, regulated by the State of Alabama. Both bank and boat 
fishing would be available. The State would conduct periodic creel and 
angler surveys, as it does at present. Improved aquatic habitat 
management would aim to increase fish populations and angler access. 
This alternative would explore stump removal to improve both fisheries 
habitat and boat access.
    Secondary public uses would continue to be hunting and wildlife 
observation. There would be one wildlife observation platform, next to 
the moist-soil units, as at present, and a 0.5-mile loop interpretive 
trail near the platform. Other forest roads would permit foot travel, 
but overall access would remain difficult (only by boat). Under 
Alternative B, the Service would look to build a bridge across the 
mouth of Okatuppa Creek to facilitate management access; this bridge 
would also be accessible to public foot travel. Refuge hunts would 
include those held currently: an archery hunt for deer, and a small 
game season for squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons. No waterfowl hunting 
would be permitted. Feral hogs would be considered incidental species 
and could be taken during all refuge hunts. The same public access and 
use under this alternative would continue; to gain access to many areas 
would remain only by boat from the reservoir.
    The staff would continue to monitor habitat restoration of 
approximately eight Farm Service Agency tracts planted in bottomland 
hardwood forests.
    Under the Enhanced Wildlife/Fisheries and Habitat Management 
Alternative, isolation of the refuge itself from refuge headquarters 
would continue to inhibit hands-on management. The remoteness of the 
refuge would not change, and frequent flooding would continue to render 
much of it inaccessible for much of the year.
    One assistant refuge manager with law enforcement collateral duty 
would be added, as well as one wildlife biologist. The refuge would 
investigate sharing a forester with other refuges. Recommended staffing 
would consist of a refuge manager, assistant refuge manager, and office 
assistant at the refuge headquarters, and a biologist and two 
maintenance workers on the refuge itself.

Alternative C. Enhanced Wildlife-Dependent Recreation

    Under Alternative C, the refuge's existing Forest Management Plan, 
which has not been fully implemented, would continue in effect, but 
again would not be fully implemented. Some stand treatments would be 
applied, but secondary treatments (thinnings) would not. Regeneration 
would occur on the forest floor, but stand recruitment would continue 
to lag. Most saplings would not mature because of heavy foraging 
pressure by white-tailed deer and feral hogs, frequent flooding, and 
shady conditions. A dense canopy would continue to inhibit regeneration 
of all but the most shade-tolerant trees. At first, mast production 
would remain high, but would probably decrease over the long term 
(i.e., beyond the 15-year life of the comprehensive conservation plan) 
as oaks become over-mature and are not replaced by younger, more 
vigorous and productive oaks.
    Backwaters, sloughs, and wetlands on the refuge would continue 
gradually filling in with sediments, a natural process of ecological 
succession that has been accelerated by human activity, namely the 
Coffeeville Dam and Reservoir's standing water, in which sediments drop 
out and accumulate. This long-term process would continue under the 
Enhanced Wildlife-Dependent Recreation Alternative.
    Although the main aquatic invasive species on the refuge are 
hydrilla, alligator weed, and water hyacinth at present, the potential 
exists for additional species to become problematic, such as giant 
salvinia. Major infestation by aquatic invasives of virtually all 
waterbodies at present are displacing native aquatic/wetland plants 
like giant bulrush and can exacerbate siltation. This, in turn, 
degrades fish habitat, including raiding water temperature and reducing 
dissolved oxygen. There are also significant effects on water-based 
recreation and waterfowl habitat. At present, 75 acres of backwater 
slough emergents per year are treated with herbicides and this would 
continue under this alternative. To a lesser extent, biological 
controls would also continue to be used.
    There would be no change in the management of invasive terrestrial 
plants and animals on the refuge under this alternative from the 
Current Management Direction Alternative.
    The refuge would continue to actively manage habitat for migratory 
birds by means of force-account farming and moist-soil management. 
Under this alternative, the acreages would not change from the acreages 
being farmed under the Current Management Direction Alternative.
    The refuge would continue to assist in the reproduction of the wood 
duck by providing 400 nest boxes and managing as is currently being 
done.
    Management of two federally listed species--bald eagle and wood 
stork--would remain the same as under the Current Management Direction 
Alternative.
    With regard to resource protection, the Corps of Engineers has 
limited funds for dredging areas of the refuge that have been filling 
in with sediments. The Service's Daphne, Alabama, Ecological Services 
Office has contaminants

[[Page 3881]]

specialists who, in the past, have conducted contaminants surveys but 
these are now dated and no complete surveys have ever been conducted. 
Oil and gas rights on the refuge are outstanding, and production 
necessitates communication and cooperation with oil/gas companies to 
reduce above-ground impacts and disturbance, as well as to avoid, 
minimize, and mitigate spills and contamination.
    Refuge staff would continue to work with private landowners on 
approximately eight Farm Service tracts to restore bottomland hardwood 
forests on easement areas.
    Under Alternative C, the principal wildlife-dependent recreation 
would remain fishing, regulated by the State. Both bank and boat 
fishing would be available. The State would continue to conduct 
periodic creel and angler surveys. Within five years of the 
comprehensive conservation plan's approval, the refuge would build new 
fishing facilities, such as a handicapped accessible fishing pier. It 
would also provide additional woody structure within the reservoir, and 
open boating access via stump removal and increased aquatic vegetation 
control.
    Secondary public uses would continue to be hunting and wildlife 
observation in the Enhanced Wildlife-Dependent Recreation Alternative. 
This alternative would also offer an improved wildlife observation 
platform, next to the moist-soil units. The Service would seek to build 
a pedestrian bridge over the mouth of Okatuppa Creek to facilitate and 
improve access to Middle Swamp. Refuge hunts would include an archery 
hunt for deer, and small game season for squirrels, rabbits, and 
raccoons. A waterfowl hunt for youths would be added, contingent upon 
having staffing resources to manage the hunt. Feral hogs would be 
considered an incidental species and could be taken during all refuge 
hunts. The same public access and use would continue under this 
alternative; to gain access to many areas would remain by boat only 
from the reservoir. More environmental education opportunities both on 
and off the refuge would be pursued.
    Isolation of the refuge from its headquarters would continue to 
inhibit hands-on management. Alternative C would add one assistant 
refuge manager with law enforcement collateral duty, as well as one 
park ranger. Recommended staffing would then be six: Refuge manager, 
assistant refuge manager, and office assistant at refuge headquarters, 
and a park ranger and two maintenance workers on the refuge.

Alternative D. Enhanced Wildlife/Fisheries, Habitat, and Public Use 
(Preferred Alternative)

    Under Alternative D, the refuge would update and fully implement 
its Forest Management Plan. Some tree harvest removal would be 
necessary to achieve understory and midstory conditions, with an 
emphasis on regeneration of bottomland hardwood oaks and other mast-
bearing trees. As feasible, the Service would work with the Corps of 
Engineers to adjust hydrological periods so that summer flooding occurs 
at fewer intervals and for shorter periods. This would avoid oak 
seedling mortality that now thwarts oak regeneration.
    With regard to the refuge backwaters, sloughs, and wetlands now 
filling in with sediments, Alternative D would utilize aerial and GPS/
GIS techniques to document current colonization by plants and 
sedimentation trends over time. Aquatic invasive species would be kept 
under control via cooperative agreements with the Corps of Engineers 
and the State of Alabama. The refuge would initiate discussions with 
the Corps to reduce impacts of too-frequent inundation by the 
Coffeeville Dam and Reservoir, and with the State to utilize approved 
methods of controlling invasive aquatic plants, which help trap 
sediments and worsen the problem. The result would be more effective 
control and reduced severity of infestations and slower sedimentation 
of refuge waters.
    Cogongrass would be sprayed annually with the objective being to 
eradicate this exotic invasive species. The refuge would investigate 
replacing cogongrass on one bank it now infests, which provides ground 
cover to avoid erosion, with a native plant species. Programs like the 
State Landowner Incentive Program may offer funding or technical 
support that could be used in private lands habitat and wildlife 
management, including control of problem species like feral hogs. 
Another possibility that the refuge would explore using is the Partners 
for Fish and Wildlife program.
    Alternative D would provide habitat for migratory birds, including 
waterfowl and neotropical migratory birds, by using force-account 
farming (e.g., millet and grain sorghum) and intensified moist-soil 
management. Staff would level and regrade moist-soil units to 
facilitate water management; in addition, the area of moist soil would 
be increased to 25-35 acres by converting existing crop fields. Over 
the 15-year life of the comprehensive conservation plan, all crop 
fields would be phased out and transitioned to moist-soil units.
    Under this alternative, staff would maintain the existing stock of 
400 wood duck nest boxes, but more intensively monitor and collect 
nesting data from them. Each nest box would be cleaned at least twice 
annually (from once annually at present).
    Two active bald eagle nests are on the refuge and would remain 
active under Alternative D. They would continue to be protected by 
sanctuaries that involve some restriction of public access by boaters, 
anglers, hunters and other refuge visitors. It is assumed that wood 
storks would continue to be observed occasionally during the summer, as 
in the Current Management Direction Alternative. Under Alternative D, 
the Service would investigate the movements of these wood storks via a 
radio telemetry study.
    Under the preferred alternative only, the refuge would request the 
assistance of contaminants specialists form the Service's Daphane, 
Alabama, Ecological Services Office to conduct complete contaminants 
surveys on the refuge to update information on the status of key toxic 
contaminants, such as mercury and other heavy metals, pesticides, and 
salt water. Oil and gas production on the refuge would continue, 
necessitating communication and cooperation with oil companies to 
reduce above-ground impacts and disturbance, as well as to avoid, 
minimize, and mitigate spills and contamination.
    Under Alternative D, the principal wildlife-dependent recreation 
would remain fishing, regulated by the State of Alabama. Both bank and 
boat fishing would be available. The State would continue to conduct 
periodic creel and angler surveys. Within 5 years of approval of the 
comprehensive conservation plan, the refuge would build new fishing 
facilities, such as a handicapped accessible fishing pier. It would 
also provide additional woody structure within the reservoir, and open 
boating access via stump removal and increased aquatic vegetation 
control.
    Secondary public uses would continue to be hunting and wildlife 
observation as in the Enhanced Wildlife-Dependent Recreation 
Alternative. This alternative would also offer an improved wildlife 
observation platform, next to the moist-soil units. The Service would 
seek to build a pedestrian bridge over the mouth of Okatuppa Creek to 
facilitate and improve access to Middle Swamp. Refuge hunts would 
include an archery hunt for deer, and a small game season for 
squirrels, rabbits and raccoons. A waterfowl hunt for youths would be 
added, contingent on having staffing resources to manage the hunt. The 
same

[[Page 3882]]

public access and use under this alternative would continue; to gain 
access to many areas would remain by boat only from the reservoir. Many 
more environmental education opportunities both on and off the refuge 
would be pursued.
    Even under Alternative D, isolation of the refuge from its 
headquarters would continue to hamper hands-on refuge management. The 
alternative would add one assistant refuge manager with law enforcement 
collateral duty, and one wildlife biologist with visitor services 
collateral duty; and would also investigate sharing a forester with 
other refuges. Recommended staffing would be six: Refuge manager, 
assistant refuge manager, and office assistant at refuge headquarters, 
and a biologist and two maintenance workers on the refuge.

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

    Dated: July 25, 2005.
Linda H. Kelsey,
Acting Regional Director.
[FR Doc. 06-616 Filed 1-23-06; 8:45 am]
BILLING CODE 4310-55-M