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Column: Joining forces to protect Florida fish, wildlife

Editor's note: This is in response to a March 31 editorial, "Deck stacked for developers."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took an important step last year to streamline and simplify a process to protect threatened and endangered species.

The amendment to our long-standing cooperative agreement — the first of its kind — represents a load-sharing arrangement that consolidates two permitting processes into one, serves our citizens more efficiently and enhances our conservation work to protect imperiled species.

All existing Endangered Species Act requirements remain in place. The agreement will allow both agencies to concentrate our resources on what matters most: conserving Florida's unique fish and wildlife for the continuing benefit of Floridians from the Panhandle to the Keys.

Here's how the cooperative agreement works: The commission's biologists, working with the service, will produce permitting guidelines, or plans, for any species they wish to include under the agreement. The plans will outline the condition of the species and prescribe ground rules for the commission's issuance of permits authorizing direct or incidental take of the species.

The rules will include a suite of measures to avoid and minimize impacts to the species. The state will hold stakeholder meetings during the drafting process and submit proposed plans to the service for review and approval.

The service, in turn, will subject the plans to the requirements of the consultation process (a biological opinion) of the Endangered Species Act, as well as to an environmental effects analysis and public comment period under the National Environmental Policy Act. Only if a plan is approved by the service can the commission issue permits under the agreement for take of the species, subject to the conditions established by the service.

Once a plan is approved, and as permit applications are received by the commission, each will be carefully reviewed exactly as the law already requires — without the extra bureaucracy of a second permitting process. The commission will provide real-time public access to permit applications and decisions on its website at MyFWC.com. An applicant may also decide to forgo the commission's permitting process and choose to obtain a federal permit from the service.

It's important to note that before this cooperative agreement was finalized, the commission strengthened its rules protecting imperiled species, already among the toughest in the nation. It was a completely transparent process. The commission held 15 stakeholder sessions from 2008 through 2010 and three public comment periods in 2009 to solicit feedback and input. The agreement also was discussed at two commission meetings in 2009, and at a third commission meeting in 2010 when the stronger rules were adopted to ensure the commission could meet or exceed the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

In addition, before entering into the agreement, the service published a draft environmental assessment analyzing the effects of entering into the agreement, and sought public review and comments on the proposed action. A majority of comments supported a more efficient process for permit issuance that would neither compromise the stringency of rules already in place, nor hamper the recovery and conservation of imperiled species.

In these days of ever-tightening budgets, fewer resources and increased workload, this is a positive step forward. It is an effort to minimize duplicative regulatory requirements, freeing up resources to better conserve this state's treasured fish and wildlife. As they've done in the past, we are confident our dedicated biologists and managers will continue to work effectively together, using their expertise to protect and recover imperiled species.

We will do this by working with citizens and partners through this inclusive approach to protect the fish and wildlife that make Florida such a remarkable place to live.

Nick Wiley is executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Cindy Dohner is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southeast regional director.

Column: Joining forces to protect Florida fish, wildlife 04/11/13 [Last modified: Thursday, April 11, 2013 5:14pm]

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