Butterflies could further restrict islands

By Steve Estes

The US Fish and Wildlife Service last week notified the Federal Emergency Management Agency that it would be reopening required agency consultation on the Biological Opinion that currently guides Monroe County development in potential endangered species habitat.

And by default, that new consultation will also require reopening the Habitat Conservation Plan for Big Pine and No Name Keys.

The reason for the new negotiation is that USFWS recently listed the Miami Blue butterfly as endangered. That rare butterfly is thought to be present in Monroe County and the service didn’t account for the species when it issued the original opinion in 2010.

FWS also plans to list two other butterflies that occur on Big Pine Key and possibly elsewhere in the Keys, and the imminent listing of those species will result in some changes in development restrictions in areas of habitat for the two butterflies.

Big Pine is already embroiled in a battle over the butterflies as USFWS and the Mosquito Control District try to work out a permit to allow mosquito spraying on the largest island in the Lower Keys, which also happens to be home to a majority of the 32 endangered species that call the Keys home.

In its letter last week, the service also hinted that it may be listing six other species in the very near future, at least three of which, the Florida semaphore catus, Big Pine partridge pea and weed spurge are either thought or known to exist on Big Pine Key.

Any form of human development that might take place in critical habitat for any of the species is covered under development rules issued by the FWS. That usually includes sizable buffer zones in an effort to keep human development as far away from the habitat areas as possible.

The problem on Big Pine, says County Growth Management Director Christine Hurley, is that a large percentage of the homes on that island are already built inside those buffer zones.

In the proposed habitat maps released by USFWS earlier this month that outline the habitat areas and buffer zones, more than 90 percent of Big Pine Key is encompassed by some species buffer zone or critical habitat area. Nearly all of No Name Key is also inside those zones. The buffer zones on Ramrod Key, Cudjoe Key and Upper Sugarloaf Key are also projected to get larger in size.

Of the soon-to-be-listed butterflies, the Florida leafwing and the Bartram’s scrub hairstreak, the preferred habitat is croton which primarily exists in pine rockland. Some of the last remaining pine rockland in the United States is located on Big Pine Key and both butterflies have been spotted in several locations.

The reason FWS has to get FEMA involved is that the species caretakers have lost court battles with environmental groups in recent years that claimed FWS was abdicating its species protection responsibilities by allowing FEM, through the National Flood Insurance Program, to continue to issue flood policies in endangered species habitat.

The two federal behemoths settled their differences with the environmental groups in part by forcing Monroe County to adopt a new permit referral process last year based on species assessment guides. Under those guides, developers who wish to build in most of unincorporated Monroe County must first go through a biological review of the species habitat that may be present on their parcel.

Some the development applications, including single-family homes, don’t meet the stringent criteria for potential impact to the listed species and are then routed straight through the county’s permit allocation process. Those that may have impact are routed to FWS for review. If the service determines there could be impact that threatens habitat it can either approve the development if it is expected to be of little impact, approve the development with conditions to mitigate the impact, or deny the development based on too much impact.

To date, Hurley says FWS has not denied any development applications and hasn’t been extremely tough on those they found to have some impact.

“But we don’t now what’s coming with the new species guidelines,” she said.

The potential new restrictions have county officials concerned again about being the front line of defense for endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

To avoid the possibility of what could be hundreds of millions in land takings cases in the future, Monroe County negotiated a settlement with FWS and FEMA over the 2010 opinion to provide for the routing requirement to the service if county staff couldn’t clear the application under the assessment guides.

That’s probably the same route the county will try to take in upcoming negotiations, says Hurley.

Under the current opinion, the service set maximum acreage impacts for each listed species that occurs in Monroe County and if those impacts are exceeded, either the opinion is reopened again or the federal agencies cease any building in affected habitat areas.

The biggest issue, says Hurley, is going to be with flood insurance in the future.

FEMA is already attempting to drastically jack up flood insurance rates in many coastal communities, and has pondered denying flood insurance in some critical habitat areas.

Flood insurance is required to qualify for any federally backed mortgage loan.

“I believe this means fewer people will qualify for flood insurance,” said Hurley.

A lack of flood insurance doesn’t shut down building, it simply means that the buyer or builder must proceed either with a private mortgage or cash.

Already deals have fallen through in the Keys once potential buyers learned of the significant increase in required flood insurance although federal legislators are attempting to stave off the start time of those increases until later or until an affordability study is conducted.

Hurley said her office anticipates the opening salvo in the negotiations over a new biological opinion to come early next month when county staff sits down with USFWS and FEMA officials to solidify the terms of reopening the opinion and the HCP.

Big Pine will probably suffer more than most islands as it is home to the butterflies as well as the endangered Key Deer and the Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit.

USFWS has already hinted it wants to redo the HCP due to an ever increasing number of road kills of the deer by vehicles, but has also suggested it may be open to just doing away with the HCP as long as most of the protections for the deer and rabbit are moved into the assessment guides under the 2010 Biological Opinion.

“That’s the direction we want to move in first,” said Hurley. “We would prefer that the entire county be under the same set of rules. It’s easier to manage.”

There are certain mitigation strategies built into the HCP for when deer kills rise significantly as they have in the last five years.

Those strategies include the installation of traffic calming devices in areas where kills are high, more stringent fencing guidelines, more public awareness campaigns of the dangers of feeding endangered species by humans, and a more proactive approach to feral cat control.

Currently USFWS has a low-key trapping program in place for feral cats on federal lands, but has no jurisdiction to conduct trapping without the county’s acquiescence  on county or private lands.

The first thing that must occur for the reopening of the HCP on Big Pine Key, said Hurley, is that FWS needs to provide a more accurate census of the deer population.

“They also need to study where the potential listed species exist so we know what areas we’re dealing with,” she said.

In the 2010 opinion, USFWS used a rather broad stroke of the pen to determine buffer zones and critical habitat areas, more than was possible necessary, said Hurley.

That is borne out, she opines, by the low rate at which they place conditions on development applications.

One issue that County Commissioners Danny Kolhage wants discussed during the initial negotiations is the purchase of conservation lands.

“If Fish and Wildlife is going to start telling us we can’t build in certain areas, they need to start finding money to buy the affected lands,” said Kolhage.

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