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Daily Rules, Proposed Rules, and Notices of the Federal Government

DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR

Fish and Wildlife Service

50 CFR Part 17

[Docket No. FWS-R4-ES-2012-0068; 4500030113]

RIN 1018-AY19

Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; 12-Month Petition Finding, Listing of the Spring Pygmy Sunfish as Threatened, and Designation of Critical Habitat

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.
ACTION: 12-Month finding; proposed rule.
SUMMARY: We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), announce a 12-month finding on a petition to list the spring pygmy sunfish (Elassoma alabamae) as threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act), and to designate critical habitat. After review of all available scientific and commercial information, we find that listing the spring pygmy sunfish as a threatened species under the Act is warranted. Accordingly, we propose to list the spring pygmy sunfish as a threatened species throughout its range and designate critical habitat for the species under the Act. In total, we propose approximately 8 stream miles (mi) (12.9 kilometers (km)) and 1,617 acres (ac) (654.4 hectares (ha)) of spring pool and spring-influenced wetland in Limestone County, Alabama, for designation as critical habitat.
DATES: We will consider comments received or postmarked on or before December 3, 2012. We must receive requests for a public hearing, in writing, at the address shown in theFOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACTsection by November 16, 2012. Comments submitted electronically using the Federal eRulemaking Portal (seeADDRESSESsection, below) must be received by 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on the closing date.
ADDRESSES: (2)By hard copy:Submit by U.S. mail or hand-delivery to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R4-ES-2012-0068; Division of Policy and Directives Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM; Arlington, VA 22203.

We request that you send comments only by the methods described above. We will post all comments onhttp://www.regulations.gov.This generally means that we will post any personal information you provide us (see the Information Requested section below for more details).

The coordinates or plot points or both from which the maps are generated are included in the administrative record for this critical habitat designation and are available athttp://www.fws.gov/mississippiES/, http://www.regulations.govat Docket No. FWS-R4-ES-2012-0068, and at the Mississippi Ecological Services Field Office (seeFOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT). Any additional tools or supporting information that we may develop for this critical habitat designation will also be available at the above locations.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Stephen Ricks, Field Supervisor, Mississippi Ecological Services Field Office, 6578 Dogwood View Parkway, Jackson, MS 39213; by telephone (601-321-1122); or by facsimile (601-965-4340). If you use a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD), please call the Federal Information Relay Service (FIRS) at 800-877-8339.
SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

This document consists of: (1) A 12-month petition finding that listing the spring pygmy sunfish under the Act is warranted; (2) a proposed rule to list the spring pygmy sunfish as threatened; and (3) a proposed rule to designate critical habitat for this species.

Executive Summary

Why we need to publish a rule.Under the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. 1531et seq.,a species or subspecies may warrant protection through listing if it is endangered or threatened throughout all or a significant portion of its range. We are proposing to list the spring pygmy sunfish as threatened under the Act because of current and future threats, and listing can only be done by issuing a rule. The spring pygmy sunfish no longer occurs at two of the three spring systems in which it historically was found, and faces a variety of threats in the Beaverdam Spring/Creek System, the only location where it currently occurs. We are also proposing to designate critical habitat under the Act. Critical habitat represents geographical areas that are essential to a species' conservation, and is designated on the basis of the best scientific information available after taking into consideration the economic impact, impact on national security, and any other relevant impact of specifying any particular area as critical habitat.

The basis for our action.Under the Act, a species may be determined to be endangered or threatened based on any of five factors: (A) Destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (C) disease or predation; (D) the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or (E) other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence. The spring pygmy sunfish is facing threats due to three of these five factors (A, D, and E), and potentially faces threats under a fourth (Factor C.) The Act also requires that the Service designate critical habitat at the time of listing provided that it is prudent and determinable. We have determined that it is both prudent and determinable (see Critical Habitat section below) and are proposing approximately 8 stream mi (12.9 km) and 1,617 ac (654.4 ha) of spring system habitat and adjacent upland buffers for designation as critical habitat.

Peer review is important.In addition to seeking public comments, we will solicit peer review of this proposal from at least three experts knowledgeable in spring pygmy sunfish biology and basic conservation biology principles and concepts.

Information Requested

We intend that any final action resulting from this proposed rule will be based on the best scientific and commercial data available and be as accurate and as effective as possible. Therefore, we request comments or information from other concerned Federal and State agencies, the scientific community, or any other interested party concerning this proposed rule. We particularly seek comments concerning:

(1) Additional information concerning the historical and current status, range, distribution, and population size of the spring pygmy sunfish, including the locations of any additional populations.

(2) Any information on the biological or ecological requirements of the species and ongoing conservation measures for the species and its habitat.

(3) Biological, commercial trade, or other relevant data concerning any threats (or lack thereof) to this species and regulations that may be addressing those threats.

(4) Current or planned activities in the areas occupied by the species and possible impacts of these activities on this species.

(5) Additional information regarding the threats to the species under the five listing factors, which are:

(a) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range;

(b) Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes;

(c) Disease or predation;

(d) The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; and

(e) Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.

(6) Any information regarding ongoing conservation activities for the spring pygmy sunfish, including the Belle Mina Farm, Ltd., candidate conservation agreement with assurances (CCAA), and their effect on the status of the species.

(7) The reasons why areas should or should not be designated as critical habitat as provided by section 4 of the Act, including the possible risks or benefits of designating critical habitat, including risks associated with publication of maps designating any area on which this species may be located, now or in the future, as critical habitat.

(8) The following specific information on:

(a) The amount and distribution of habitat for spring pygmy sunfish;

(b) What areas, that would be occupied at the time of listing (i.e., are currently occupied) and that contain the physical and biological features essential to the conservation of this species, should be included in a critical habitat designation and why;

(c) Special management considerations or protection that may be needed for the essential features in critical habitat areas, including managing for the potential effects of climate change; and

(d) What areas not occupied at the time of listing are essential for the conservation of this species and why.

(9) Information on the projected and reasonably likely impacts of changing environmental conditions resulting from climate change on the species and its habitat.

(10) Information on groundwater aquifer or recharge areas for spring systems that support the spring pygmy sunfish, and the possible implications of extracting ground and surface water and its impact on the spring pygmy sunfish and its habitat.

(11) Any probable economic, national security, or other relevant impacts of designating any area that may be included in the final designation; in particular, we seek information on any impacts on small entities or families, and the benefits of including or excluding areas that exhibit these impacts.

(12) Information on whether the benefits of the exclusion of lands covered by the Belle Mina Farm, Ltd., CCAA, or any other particular area, outweigh the benefits of inclusion under section 4(b)(2) of the Act.

(13) Whether we could improve or modify our approach to designating critical habitat in any way to provide for greater public participation and understanding, or to better accommodate public concerns and comments.

Please note that submissions merely stating support for or opposition to the action under consideration without providing supporting information, although noted, will not be considered in making a determination, as section 4(b)(1)(A) of the Act directs that determinations as to whether any species is an endangered or threatened species must be made “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available,” and section 4(b)(2) directs that critical habitat designations be made based on the best scientific data available and after consideration of economic and other relevant impacts.

You may submit your comments and materials concerning this proposed rule by one of the methods listed inADDRESSES. We request that you send comments only by the methods described inADDRESSES.

If you submit information viahttp://www.regulations.gov,your entire submission—including any personal identifying information—will be posted on the Web site. If your submission is made via a hardcopy that includes personal identifying information, such as your address, phone number, and email address, you may request at the top of your document that we withhold this information from public review. However, we cannot guarantee that we will be able to do so. We will post all hardcopy submissions onhttp://www.regulations.gov.Please include sufficient information with your comments to allow us to verify any scientific or commercial information you include.

Comments and materials we receive, as well as supporting documentation we used in preparing this proposed rule, will be available for public inspection onhttp://www.regulations.gov,or by appointment, during normal business hours, at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mississippi Ecological Services Field Office (seeFOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT).

Background

Section 4(b)(3)(B) of the Act requires that, for any petition to revise the Federal Lists of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife and Plants (Lists) that contains substantial scientific or commercial information that listing a species may be warranted, we make a finding within 12 months of the date of receipt of the petition that the petitioned action is either: (a) Not warranted; (b) warranted; or (c) warranted, but the immediate proposal of a regulation implementing the petitioned action is precluded by other pending proposals to determine whether any species is endangered or threatened, and expeditious progress is being made to add or remove qualified species from the Lists. With this publication, we have determined that the petitioned action to list spring pygmy sunfish is warranted, and we are proposing to list the species and to designate critical habitat for the species.

Previous Federal Actions

The spring pygmy sunfish was proposed for listing as endangered with critical habitat on November 29, 1977 (42 FR 60765). The critical habitat portion of the proposal was withdrawn on March 6, 1979 (44 FR 12382), in order to make a new critical habitat proposal that conformed to new, more prescriptive provisions for critical habitat made in the 1978 amendments to the Act. The Service proposed critical habitat again for the species on July 27, 1979 (44 FR 44418). The pending proposal to list the spring pygmy sunfish, along with the proposed critical habitat designation, were withdrawn effective November 29, 1979, as announced in theFederal Registeron January 24, 1980 (45 FR 5782).

The spring pygmy sunfish was included in the December 30, 1982, notice of review (47 FR 58454) as a category 2 candidate species for listing. Category 2 status was given to those species for which the Service possessed information indicating that proposing to list as endangered or threatened was possibly appropriate, but for which conclusive data on biological vulnerability and threats were not currently available to support proposed rules. Subsequently, in the September 18, 1985 (50 FR 37958); January 6, 1989 (54 FR 554); and November 15, 1994 (59 FR 58982) notices of review, the spring pygmy sunfish was identified as a category 1 candidate species for listing. Category 1 status was given to those species for which the Service had on file sufficient information on biological vulnerability and threat(s) to support a proposal to list as endangered or threatened but for which a proposal had not yet been issued because of other listing actions. On February 28, 1996 (61FR 7457), the Service published a notice of review removing the spring pygmy sunfish from the candidate list because of successful introduction, increased distribution (outside of the range of the introduction), and the discovery of additional populations, including one on Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. At that time, we reported that the known populations, each exceeding 1,000 individuals, were increasing.

On November 24, 2009, we received a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Michael Sandel of the University of Alabama, requesting that the spring pygmy sunfish be listed as endangered under the Act. In a December 17, 2009, letter to the petitioners, we responded that we reviewed the information presented in the petition, and we outlined the petition process and timelines. In July 2010, we received letters from the North American Native Fishes Association (NANFA) and Dr. Bruce Stallsmith (University of Alabama at Huntsville) requesting that we emergency list the species under section 4(b)(7) of the Act. Following review of the petition, the letters, and information in our files, we determined that issuing an emergency regulation temporarily listing the species was not warranted. We notified NANFA and Dr. Stallsmith of our determination on July 21, 2010.

On April 1, 2011, we published in theFederal Register(76 FR 18138) our 90-day finding that the petition to list the spring pygmy sunfish as endangered presented substantial information indicating that the requested action may be warranted, and we initiated a status review of the species.

Since 2010, Belle Mina Farms, the owner of Beaverdam Spring, Moss Spring, and the upper reach of Beaverdam Creek, in Limestone County, Alabama, and the Service have been engaged in drafting a candidate conservation agreement with assurances (CCAA) for a population of spring pygmy sunfish. The CCAA outlines a variety of conservation measures that will be implemented to benefit the species (see “Conservation Efforts to Reduce Habitat Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment” under the Factor A discussion, below). On September 14, 2010, we received the completed application from the landowner for an enhancement of survival permit for the spring pygmy sunfish under section 10(a)(1)(A) of the Act along with a draft CCAA. The CCAA, the permit application, and the environmental action statement (EAS) were made available for public comment for a 30-day period beginning on February 21, 2012 (77 FR 9958). The CCAA and EAS were finalized in April 2012, and the associated permit was issued on June 7, 2012. If the spring pygmy sunfish is listed under the Act, the permit authorizes incidental take of the spring pygmy sunfish due to otherwise lawful activities (e.g., crop cultivation, livestock grazing, silviculture, vegetation management, water usage, road maintenance, fencerow maintenance, etc.) in accordance with the terms of the CCAA.

Species Information Taxonomy and Description

The spring pygmy sunfish (Elassoma alabamae)was discovered in 1937, but not described until 1993 (Mayden 1993, pp.1-14). This species is the smallest member of the genusElassoma.Males are normally smaller than females and are very dark to black with iridescent blue-green color on their sides, cheeks, and gill covers (Boschung and Mayden 2004, pp. 614-615). The maximum standard length (distance from tip of snout to the end of the last vertebrae) for adult males is 0.80 in (20.4 mm) and for adult females it is 0.96 in (24.5 mm) (Boschung and Mayden 2004, pp. 614-615). Both sexes have broad vertical and narrow bars on their flanks. We accept the characterization of thespring pygmy sunfish as a valid species based on the taxonomic characters distinguishing the species from other members of theElassomagenus (Mayden 1993, p.4). Its uniqueness is widely accepted by the scientific community, and there has been no discrepancy concerning its distinctiveness as a separate taxonomic entity (Boschunget al.2004, p. 614).

Current Distribution

The range of the spring pygmy sunfish is very restricted. The species currently occupies about 5.9 mi (9.5 km) and 1,435 ac (580.6 ha) of four spring pools and associated features confluent with the middle to upper Beaverdam Spring/Creek watershed. These spring pools, which include Moss, Beaverdam, Thorsen, and Horton springs, all in Limestone County, Alabama, along with associated spring runs and wetlands, are collectively referred to as the Beaverdam Spring/Creek system. The greatest concentration of spring pygmy sunfish occurs within the Beaverdam Spring site, which comprises 24 percent of the total occupied habitat for the species.

Life History

The spring pygmy sunfish has high fecundity (reproductive capacity) and quickly populates areas of available habitat (Sandel pers. obs. 2004 through 2009). Adults reproduce from January to October. Spawning occurs in March and April, when water quality parameters are within a suitable range (pH of 6.0 to 7.7 and water temperatures of 57.2 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) (15 to 20 degrees Celsius (°C)). Spring pygmy sunfish produce about 65 eggs, and hatching occurs from April to September (Sandel pers. obs. 2004 through 2009). Two spawning attempts per year have been reported in captivity (Pettyet al.2011, p. 4). In captivity, the spring pygmy sunfish may live slightly longer than 2 years, but normally their life span is 1 year or less (Boschung and Mayden 2004, pp. 614-615).

Habitat

The spring pygmy sunfish is a spring-associated (Warren 2004, p.185) and groundwater-dependent (Jandebeur, pers. comm., 2011) fish endemic to the Tennessee River drainage in the Eastern Highland Rim physiographic province and Dissected Tablelands (Marbutet al.1913, p. 53) of Lauderdale and Limestone Counties in northern Alabama. The preferred habitat for the spring pygmy sunfish is colorless to slightly stained spring water, occurring within several components of spring geomorphology including the spring head (where water emerges from the ground), spring pool (water pool at spring head), spring run (stream or channel downstream of spring pool), and associated spring-fed wetlands (Warren 2004, pp. 184-185). No contemporary water flow rates characterizing groundwater flow from the springs are available. However, historical flow rates for Pryor Spring (where the species once occurred) and Moss Spring of 800 to 5,000 gallons per minute (gpm) (3,000 to 19,000 liters per minute (lpm))(tabulated from Chandler and Moore 1987, pp. 3-4), respectively, indicate that the spring pygmy sunfish is associated with moderately flowing springs of the second to fourth order (after Meinzer 1923, in Chandler and Moore 1987, p. 5; McMaster and Harris 1963, p. 28).

Natural spring pool habitats are typically static, persisting without disruption for long periods, even during droughts, in the absence of water extraction. The species is most abundant at the spring outflow or emergence (spring head) and spring pool area. The spring pygmy sunfish is typically found at water depths from 5 to 40 inches (in) (13 to 102 centimeters (cm)) and rarely in the upper 5 inches (13 cm) of the water column. Species of submergent and emergent vegetation providing important habitat for the spring pygmy sunfish include clumpsand stands ofSparganiumsp. (bur reed),Ceratophyllumsp. (coontail),Nasturtium officinale(watercress),Juncussp. (rush),Carexsp.(sedges), Nuphar luteum(yellow pond lily),Myriophyllumsp.(parrot feather),Utriculariasp. (bladderwort),Polygonumsp. (smartweed),Lythrum salicaria(purple loosestrife), andCallitrichesp. (water starwort) (Mayden 1993, p. 11; Jandebeur 1997, pp. 42-44; Sandel 2011, pp. 3-5, 9-11). The species is also associated with certain animal species such as amphipods, isopods, spring salamanders, crayfish, and snails (Sandel 2011, pp.11-12; Mayden 1993, p. 11).

Historical Distribution and Status

The spring pygmy sunfish was known to have historically occurred at two other sites. This species was initially discovered in 1938, in Cave Springs, Lauderdale County, Alabama, where it was extirpated about a year later due to inundation from the formation of Pickwick Reservoir. In 1941, this species was also discovered in Pryor Spring within the Swan Creek watershed in Limestone County, Alabama, by Tarzwell and Bretton, where it was noted to be common (Jandebeur 2011a, pp. 1-5). Limited sampling efforts in the Pryor Springs complex between 1966 and 1979 indicated a sparse population of spring pygmy sunfish west of, and none east of, Highway 31. The exact location of the original collection in Pryor Spring is uncertain, but Jandebeur (2011a, pp. 1-5) speculates the original site to be solely west of Highway 31, within the Pryor Spring Branch (spring-fed wetlands) and not in Pryor Spring proper (spring head and pool), east of the highway. However, in 1984, in an effort to enhance this population in Pryor Spring, fish were moved from Moss Spring (Beaverdam Spring/Creek System) into Pryor Spring on both sides of Highway 31 (Metteeet. al.1986, pp. 14-15). Reintroduction efforts continued into 1986 and 1987 (Metteeet. al.1986, pp. 6-7). However, by 2007, the population was determined to be extirpated due to impaired water quality and quantity, likely attributable to contaminants from agricultural runoff (Sandel 2008, p. 2; 2011, pp. 3, 6).

The spring pygmy sunfish exhibits metapopulation (a group of individual populations that have some level of gene flow between them) structure by occupying all suitable spring habitats where there is flowing spring water and connectivity. Migration and continuity of the species between spring pools is very important in maintaining the genetic diversity of species within these sections of the Beaverdam Spring/Creek system. Sandel (2008, pp. 15-16; 2011, p. 8) suggests that the spring pygmy sunfish population in Beaverdam Spring/Creek is a single, structured, continuous group of breeding individuals, genetically identifiable with limited gene flow from each springhead subpopulation, and that the loss of many subpopulations could cause extinction of the metapopulation. However, Jandebeur (2011b, pp. 1-13) speculates that these populations of spring pygmy sunfish evolved with beaver ecology and that during migration of spring pygmy sunfish from beaver pond habitats, the species may colonize or recolonize existing habitat downstream, even though individual subpopulations may be extirpated due to drought or other ecological issues.

Summary of Information Pertaining to the Five Factors

Section 4 of the Act and its implementing regulations (50 CFR part 424) set forth the procedures for adding species to the Federal Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants. A species may be determined to be an endangered or threatened species due to one or more of the following five factors described in section 4(a)(1) of the Act:

(A) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range;

(B) Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes;

(C) Disease or predation;

(D) The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; and

(E) Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.

Listing actions may be warranted based on any of the above threat factors, singly or in combination. Each of these factors is discussed below.

In considering what factors might constitute threats to a species, we must look beyond the exposure of the species to a particular factor to evaluate whether the species may respond to that factor in a way that causes actual impacts to the species. If there is exposure to a factor and the species responds negatively, the factor may be a threat. The factor is a threat if it drives, or contributes to, the risk of extinction of the species such that the species warrants listing as endangered or threatened as those terms are defined in the Act. However, the identification of factors that could impact a species negatively may not be sufficient to compel a finding that the species warrants listing. The information must include evidence sufficient to suggest that these factors are operative threats that act on the species to the point that the species may meet the definition of endangered or threatened under the Act.

Factor A: The Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment of Its Habitat or Range

Increased human population growth, and the accompanying demand for water, will likely alter the Beaverdam Spring/Creek system and its recharge areas through increased water extraction (pumping), diversion, and retention (Erman 2002, p. 8). Because springs provide shelter, thermal refuge, breeding sites, movement corridors, and prey source habitat for the spring pygmy sunfish, the species is dependent on water quantities sufficient to provide spring habitat that is stable and permanent (Erman 2002, p. 8).

Urban and Industrial Development

Urban development adjacent to the Beaverdam Spring/Creek system would likely fragment and directly impact suitable spring pygmy sunfish habitat by decreasing water quality and quantity, and by limiting the species' movement throughout the system. When an area is urbanized, many impermeable surfaces are constructed such as roofs, pavements, and road surfaces. All are intentionally constructed to be far less permeable than natural soils and to remove stormwater quickly, which results in a reduction in direct recharge into the aquifer, increased stormwater runoff (Younger 2007, p. 39), immediate changes in water quality parameters such as decreased oxygen levels and increased temperature, and increased water quantity and flow velocity (Fieldet al.2003, pp. 326-333). The stormwater flow velocity carries sediments that may scarify (make scratches or cuts in) rock and gravel substrates (Waters 1995, pp. 57, 66) and uproot aquatic vegetation, thereby destroying important foraging, spawning, and refuge habitat for the species (Fieldet al.2003, pp. 326-333).

The spring pygmy sunfish is currently facing threats from planned large-scale residential and industrial projects and ongoing development within the vicinity of the Beaverdam Spring/Creek watershed. Sandel (2011, p. 11) observed declines in the species' population and attributed it to sedimentation from two nearby construction activities: the construction of a new sewer line adjacent to the spring system and the construction of the Ashbury subdivision 2.3 mi (3.7 km) northeast of the species' habitat. The Ashbury subdivision, adjacent to Hardeman Branch and draining into theupper Beaverdam Spring/Creek watershed, filled adjacent wetlands when residential housing, roads, utility crossings, and stormwater drains were constructed (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 2011, pp. 1-6).

The City of Huntsville's Master Plan for Western Annexed Land (Sasaki 2011, pp. 1-83) proposes developing a total of 10,823 ac (4,379.9 ha) adjacent to spring pygmy sunfish habitat. More than 68 percent of the proposed development site is adjacent to the Beaverdam Spring/Creek watershed. The restricted-use area for subdivision development, within the City of Huntsville, is a minimum of 25 feet (7.6 meters) from the perimeter of a perennial spring. However, no restrictions are set forth for ephemeral springs or seasonal groundwater seepages (City of Huntsville 2007, p. 28), which include many of the ephemeral springs, seepages, and streams draining into the Beaverdam Spring/Creek watershed. These features are necessary for maintenance of seasonal flow rates. Filling them or converting them to developed areas could therefore adversely affect the spring pygmy sunfish. In addition, there are roads proposed to connect the planned developments with the Interstate 65 and Interstate 565 corridors (Sasaki 2011, pp. 1-83), along with feeder roads and improvements on primary and secondary existing roadways in support of new residential and industrial projects (Sasaki 2011, pp. 1-83). Developed, paved-over areas (impervious substrate) promote runoff and inhibit infiltration, changing water flow rates from slow and incremental to fast and localized, because stormwater is directed via surface routes into specific areas of the receiving stream, rather than infiltrating into the soil or draining naturally into surface water.

Pumping or diversion of springs creates unstable conditions for spring-dependent species such as the spring pygmy sunfish through fluctuating water levels and temperature changes. The incremental and cumulative groundwater recharge effects on the habitat of the spring pygmy sunfish may not become evident for years (Likens 2009, p. 90). Within north Alabama, the availability of large quantities of groundwater from springs has been an important factor in industrial and urban development (Warman and Causey 1963, p. 93). It is estimated that, by 2015, the population in Limestone and Lauderdale Counties will increase dramatically (Roop 2010, p. 1), along with expanding urbanization and industrialization (Sasaki 2011, pp. 1-83).

The Fort Payne Chert of the Early Mississippian Age is the principal aquifer of spring pygmy sunfish habitat and provides groundwater to all of Limestone County (McMaster and Harris, Jr. 1963, p. 1). Groundwater in the County is ultimately derived from percolation of precipitation (McMaster and Harris, Jr. 1963, p. 17) into the aquifer system. In urban settings, percolation of rainwater to the aquifer may be disrupted due to less pervious zones and more shunting of rainfall into stormwater systems (Healy 2010, pp. 70-72; Younger 2007, pp. 117-121). Change in land use from rural to urban/industrial within the Beaverdam Spring/Creek area will be detrimental to the spring pygmy sunfish due to changes in the water quality parameters such as oxygen and temperature, along with changes in water quantity, such as increased stream flow and velocity, due to increased amounts of impervious materials and associated stormwater runoff in the watershed. This may be coupled with a subsequent reduction in precipitation infiltrating through the soil surface to the aquifer, which will ultimately reduce spring baseflow (Field et al. 2003, pp. 326-333; Healy 2010, p. 3).

Water Quantity

Excessive groundwater extraction from the aquifer supplying Beaverdam Spring/Creek is a threat to the spring pygmy sunfish (Drennen, pers. obsv. 2007-2011; Sandel 2011, pp. 3-6; National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program,http://tn.water.usgs.gov/lten/lten.html) because of the reduction of the water levels in the aquifer and resultant decreased spring outflow (Cook, Geological Survey of Alabama (GSA), pers. comm., 2011). Sandel (in Kuhajdaet al.2009, p. 19; 2011, pp. 3-6) documented a relationship between pumping activities in Moss, Horton, and Thorsen Springs and degraded spring pygmy sunfish habitat. Specifically, in Thorsen Spring, during 2007, water was extracted to a level that destroyed vegetation and decreased the abundance of the spring pygmy sunfish by 99 percent (Sandel, pers. obs., 2004 through 2009; Sandel 2011, p. 6). The proximity of the spring pygmy sunfish's habitat to agricultural land throughout its range makes it vulnerable to impacts due to the extraction of groundwater for agricultural uses. Sandel (in Kuhajdaet al.2009, p. 19) estimated that up to 16,000 gpm (62,000 lpm) of water was extracted from the Beaverdam Spring/Creek watershed for agricultural purposes during drought conditions during the 2008 growing season. He further estimated that this level of withdrawal desiccated and killed aquatic vegetation necessary for the spawning, foraging, and shelter of the species.

Commercial water withdrawal from this same aquifer by the Limestone County pumping station, between 2006 and 2011, was over 1 billion gallons (3.9 billion liters) at an estimated flow rate of 450 gpm (1,740 lpm) (Holland, pers. comm., 2011). Heavy groundwater withdrawal by the cities of Huntsville and Madison (east of the spring pygmy sunfish habitat), and the adjacent rural population, is estimated at 16 million gallons per day (62 million liters per day) (U.S. Geological Survey National Aquatic Water Quality Assessment 2001, 2009; Sandel, pers. comm., 2007-2009; Kingsbury 2003, p. 2; Hooset al.2001, p. 1). Withdrawal of groundwater by pumping, at high levels such as those above, especially during drought conditions, can cause changes to water budgets (Healy 2010, p. 15) and the natural flow of spring systems (Alley in Likens 2009, p. 91). Pumping from wells beside streams also lowers groundwater levels and reduces surface water flow within streams and spring runs. In smaller streams, decreased flow caused by pumping can be large enough to create harmful effects upon the stream and its wildlife (Hunt 1999, pp. 98-102). Water extraction by pumping also causes a loss of aquifer storage and lowers the pressure in the aquifer (Theis 1935, p. 519), resulting in decreased spring flow velocity and quantity to adjacent streams. These reductions in the natural flow regime can adversely affect the spring pygmy sunfish.

In several large springs in the United States, groundwater extraction for public consumption and agricultural use has impacted listed fish species by decreasing groundwater levels. Examples include the endangered Devil's Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) (Hoffmanet al.2003, p. 1248) and the endangered fountain darter (Etheostoma fonticola) (Service 1996, p. 19). Water extraction in spring pygmy sunfish habitat is causing desiccation and reduction of the aquatic vegetation, and concentrating pollutants.

The effects on stream flow after water extraction stops may be greater due to the overall decrease in water quantity in the stream. Decreased water levels after pumping in the spring pool correspond to decreased aquatic vegetation in the system; less water quantity increases the desiccation of vegetation, which may negatively impact the species (Jandebeur 1979, pp. 4-8; Mayden 1993, pp. 11-12) by reducing the vegetative cover and contributing to eutrophicationof the water, as demonstrated with spring pygmy sunfish habitat impacts and subsequent population declines in Moss, Horton, and Thorsen Springs (Sandel pers. obs. 2004 through 2009; 2011, pp. 3-6).

Water Quality

The heavy use of chemicals within spring pygmy sunfish habitat and the recharge areas of occupied spring systems is a potential threat to the species. The intensive agricultural practices and proposed urbanization and industrialization plans within the immediate area of the watershed threaten to contaminate the groundwater in the aquifer supplying the Beaverdam Spring/Creek site (Healy 2010, p. 70). Transportation of contaminants to the aquifer by recharge water can be slow and steady or highly episodic over time (Healy 2010, p. 75). In a similar spring system in northeast Alabama, the threatened pygmy sculpin (Cottus paulus) is believed to be impacted by the increased concentration of toxins entering the aquifer from a nearby military base (Thomas, pers. comm., 2009).

Fertilizers and pesticides are transported to the aquifer by recharge, or into surface water routes, where they eventually enter springs and are a threat to the survival of fishes found there (Hoffmanet al.2003, p. 1248; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1996, pp. 35-36). Toxins can concentrate when spring flow is reduced, posing an even greater threat to spring fishes. The Beaverdam Spring/Creek watershed has the highest annual crop harvest, the highest total annual nitrogen use, and second highest annual phosphorus use, along with elevated pesticide usages detected in groundwater, within the Eastern Highland Rim (Mooreland 2011, p. 2; NAWQA 2009,http://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/digmap.html;Kingsbury 2003, p. 20). Both the historic and extant spring pygmy sunfish populations in Limestone County (Beaverdam Spring/Creek, Pryor Springs) are within the Wheeler Lake Basin (southern boundary of Limestone County), where Tsegayeet al.(2006, pp. 175-176) found that rapid urbanization with associated decrease in agricultural land cover is likely responsible for water quality degradation in streams from non-point source phosphorus pollution. Phosphorus content of groundwater is generally low (Wetzel 1983, p. 281). However, urbanization increases the amount of phosphorus from residential fertilizers and storm sewer drainage (Wetzel 1983, p. 281) that may enter groundwater recharge areas. Phosphorus limits biological productivity (Wetzel 1983, p. 255) by impacting organismal metabolism. Nitrogen also impacts aquatic life. For instance, un-ionized ammonia (which contains nitrogen) is highly toxic to fish (Hoffmanet al.2003, p. 681). The planned development adjacent to spring pygmy sunfish habitat is likely to increase phosphorus and nitrogen levels in the future.

Aquatic plants, which the spring pygmy sunfish uses for spawning, shelter, and foraging, are also impacted by indiscriminate use of chemicals (Jandebeur 2012, p. 2; Sandel 2011, pp. 1-5, 8-9). Since 1945, herbicide usage, cattle grazing, and irrigation have occurred throughout the spring systems and waterways that are habitat for this species (Jandebeur 1979, pp. 4-8). Aquatic vegetation management within Thorsen Spring, Horton Spring, and the Pryor Spring/Branch system has removed the spring pygmy sunfish's shelter vegetation, egg substrate, and food sites (Jandebeur 1979, pp. 4-8; Mayden 1993, p. 9; Jandebeur 2012, p. 2). Agricultural chemical contamination results in sublethal toxic effects in fish species, affecting the immune system, hormone regulation, reproduction, and developmental stages (Hoffmanet al.2003,pp. 1056--1063, 1242). The spring pygmy sunfish's negative response to herbicides (Hoffmanet al.2003,p. 1242) is documented by the subsequent reduction and eventual loss of the population in Pryor Branch after the application of 2, 4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) to that area in the 1940s (Jandebeur 2012, pp. 1-18). This herbicide is toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates, and has properties and characteristics associated with chemicals generally detected in groundwater contamination. Decaying vegetation caused by the application of this herbicide also impacts fishes by reducing dissolved oxygen levels (Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Material Safety Data Sheet, pp. 1-13).

Many of the same chemicals used in large-scale agricultural practices are also used by municipal entities including urban and rural households. Stormwater runoff from city streets, construction sites, and storm sewers; household wastes; and leachate from septic tanks and landfills alter the sediment load in aquatic systems and deposit contaminants into surface and groundwater sources (Likens 2009, p. 90). Water quality degradation from chemicals will increase with the expected increase in urbanization and industrialization of the area.

Overgrazing by livestock is a major threat to springs, especially where animals have free range through spring systems and wetlands. Cows tend to congregate in wetland areas, where they consume and trample vegetation, thereby reducing shade around the spring and increasing the water temperature. Livestock also trample banks in springs and spring runs, leading to increased stormwater and sediment runoff, which eliminates habitat for invertebrate prey species (Erman 2002, p. 8; Sadaet al.2001, pp. 14-16). Excessive sediment runoff during stormwater events decreases water clarity, which reduces light penetration needed for plant growth and results in impacts to the spring pygmy sunfish's spawning and feeding sites.

Timber harvesting and land clearing can also have impacts on spring water quality and associated spring species. Recent tree removal along the boundary of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, which is spring pygmy sunfish habitat and part of the Beaverdam Spring/Creek system, highlights the need for careful management of spring habitats (Hurt, pers. comm., 2012). The removal of the trees greatly reduced the buffer along the Beaverdam Spring/Creek system and will likely increase sedimentation into the stream during stormwater runoff. An appropriate mixture of shade and sunlight is needed for the proper growth and maintenance of vegetation in the spring environment. This vegetation is important to maintaining a stable water temperature and habitat for an invertebrate prey base. Reducing shade by mechanical logging and clearing can increase atypical spring flow, lead to greater spring run flow variability, and increase sedimentation (Erman 2002, p. 9) by altering the existing geomorphology and enhancing stormwater runoff.

Conservation Efforts To Reduce Habitat Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment

When considering whether or not to list a species under the Act, we must identify existing conservation efforts and their effect on the species. Under the Act and our policy implementing this provision, known as the Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts When Making Listing Decisions (PECE) (68 FR 15100; March 28, 2003), we must evaluate the certainty of an effort's effectiveness on the basis of whether the effort or plan: Establishes specific conservation objectives; identifies the necessary steps to reduce threats or factors for decline; includes quantifiable performance measures for the monitoring of compliance and effectiveness; incorporates the principles of adaptive management; is likely to be implemented; and is likelyto improve the species' viability at the time of the listing determination. In general, in order to meet these standards for the spring pygmy sunfish, conservation efforts must, at minimum, report data on existing populations, describe activities taken toward conservation of the species, demonstrate either through data collection or best available science how these measures will alleviate threats, provide for a mechanism to integrate new information (adaptive management), and provide information regarding certainty of the implementation (e.g., funding and staffing mechanisms).

The Service entered into a CCAA for the benefit of the spring pygmy sunfish with Belle Mina Farms, Ltd., and the Land Trust of Huntsville and North Alabama (Land Trust) on June 7, 2012. The area covered under the CCAA is approximately 3,200 acres and encompasses the upper 24 percent of habitat occupied by the Beaverdam Spring/Creek metapopulation, which is currently the only known population for the species. Under the CCAA, the landowner agrees to implement conservation measures to address known threats to the species. These measures will help protect the species on his property in the near term and also minimize any incidental take of the species that might occur as a result of conducting other covered activities, if the species becomes federally listed in the future. Conservation measures to be implemented by the landowner on this property will assist in the reduction of chemical usage and stormwater runoff from agricultural fields by establishing and maintaining vegetated buffer zones around Moss and Beaverdam Spring. The landowner also agrees to restrict timber harvest and cattle grazing within the Beaverdam Spring/Creek and Moss Spring habitats, and to refrain from any deforestation, industrial/residential development, aquaculture, temporary or permanent ground water removal installations, and other potentially damaging actions without prior consultation with the Service and the Service's written agreement. These actions will minimize impacts and help to maintain groundwater recharge of the aquifer and adequate spring flow. The Land Trust will conduct monitoring on the progress of the conservation actions and annual habitat analyses.

The CCAA and associated enhancement of survival permit have a duration of 20 years; however, under a special provision of this CCAA, if at any time a 15 percent decline in the status of the spring pygmy sunfish is determined, there will be a reevaluation of the conservation measures set forth in the CCAA. If such a reevaluation reflects a need to change the conservation measures, the amended measure(s) will be implemented or the CCAA will be terminated and the permit surrendered.

Conservation efforts set forth in this CCAA are a positive step toward the conservation of the spring pygmy sunfish. These conservation actions will reduce the severity of some of the threats to the species outlined under Factor A within the upper portion of the Beaverdam Spring/Creek and Moss Spring sites. However, these conservation measures and the CCAA are restricted to only the upper 24 percent of occupied habitat in the Beaverdam Spring/Creek complex. There is no protection for the 24 percent of the species' habitat within the middle reach of the Beaverdam Spring/Creek System. The remaining 52 percent of the species' habitat, although it is federally owned and protected, is considered marginal habitat in the lower reach of the Beaverdam Spring/Creek System. In the middle and non-protected area below the CCAA protected site, land use practices continue to contribute to water quantity and water quality degradation. In addition, the large-scale development planned adjacent to this species' habitat, and outside the boundaries of the land enrolled in the CCAA, continues to pose a threat to the spring pygmy sunfish and its habitat. Furthermore, since this CCAA has been just recently enacted, there has yet to be long-term monitoring, which is needed to evaluate the overall effectiveness of these efforts.

Summary of Factor A

As discussed above, the spring pygmy sunfish and its habitat are currently facing the threats of both declining water quality and quantity. Excessive groundwater usage, and the resultant reduction of the water levels in the aquifer/recharge areas and decreased spring outflow in the Beaverdam Spring/Creek system, is believed to have negatively impacted the spring pygmy sunfish and its habitat. Contamination of the recharge area and aquifer from the intensive use of chemicals (i.e., herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers) within the spring pygmy sunfish's habitat poses a threat to the species' survival. Stormwater discharge from agricultural lands and urban sites compounds the water quality degradation by increasing sediment load and depositing contaminants into surface and groundwater sources. In addition, the large-scale residential and industrial development planned adjacent to the Beaverdam Spring/Creek system will exacerbate the decreasing water quantity and quality issues within the habitat of the spring pygmy sunfish's single metapopulation. Overgrazing by livestock and land clearing near and within the spring systems reduces the vegetation in the spring and increases stormwater and sediment runoff, posing a threat to the single spring pygmy sunfish population, particularly in the middle and lower portions of its range.

Based on our review of the best commercial and scientific data available, we conclude that the present or threatened destruction, modification, and curtailment of its habitat or range is currently a threat to the spring pygmy sunfish and is expected to persist and possibly escalate in the future, particularly in light of the increasing demands for groundwater and large-scale development that is planned near this species' habitat. While the CCAA has reduced some of the threats under this factor, it only covers a portion of the extant range of the species, and will not ameliorate all threats of ongoing and potential water quantity and water quality degradation.

Factor B: Overutilization for Commercial, Recreational, Scientific, or Educational Purposes

The spring pygmy sunfish is not a commercially valuable species. However, this species has been actively sought by researchers since its discovery in 1937. Overcollecting may have been a localized factor in the historical decline of this species, particularly within the introduced population in Pryor Spring/Branch (Jandebeur 2012, p. 14); however, the overall impact of collection on the spring pygmy sunfish population is unknown (Jandebeur 2012, p. 14). The localized distribution and small size of known populations renders them vulnerable to overzealous recreational or scientific collecting. However, at this time we have no specific information indicating that overcollection rises to the level to pose a threat to the species now or in the future. Therefore, we find that overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes does not constitute a threat to the spring pygmy sunfish at this time.

Factor C: Disease or Predation

Diseases of the spring pygmy sunfish are poorly known, and we have no specific information indicating that disease occurs within spring pygmy sunfish populations or poses a threat to the species. Eggs, juveniles, and adult spring pygmy sunfish are preyed upon by some invertebrate species, parasites, and vertebrate species such as frogs, snakes, turtles, other fish, and piscivorous (fish-eating) birds. It ispossible that predation increases when fish are concentrated in smaller areas when groundwater is depleted through water extraction. However, we have no evidence of any specific declines in the spring pygmy sunfish due to predation.

In summary, we conclude that the best scientific and commercial information available indicates, at the present time, that diseases or predation are not threats to the spring pygmy sunfish.

Factor D: The Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms

The spring pygmy sunfish and its habitat are afforded some protection from surface water quality and habitat degradation under the Clean Water Act (33 U.S.C. 1251 et seq.), and the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act (Code of Alabama, sections 22-22-1et seq.) and regulations promulgated by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (Maynard and Gale 1995, pp. 20-28). While these laws have resulted in some improvement in water quality and stream habitat for aquatic life, such as requiring landowners engaged in agricultural practices to have an erosion prevention component within their farm plan, alone they have not been fully adequate to protect this species due to inconsistent implementation, monitoring, and enforcement. Furthermore, habitat degradation is ongoing despite the protection afforded by these laws.

The State of Alabama maintains water-use classifications through issuance of National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits to industries, municipalities, and others; these permits set maximum limits on certain pollutants or pollutant parameters. For water bodies on the Clean Water Act's section 303(d) List of Impaired Water Bodies, States are required under the Clean Water Act to establish a total maximum daily load (TMDL) for the pollutants of concern that will bring water quality into the applicable standard. Many of the water bodies within the occupied range of the spring pygmy sunfish do not meet Clean Water Act standards (Alabama 2008 section 303(d) List of Impaired Water Bodies).

The State of Alabama's surface water quality standards, adopted from the national standards set by the EPA, were established with the intent to protect all aquatic resources within the State of Alabama. These water quality regulations appear to be protective of the spring pygmy sunfish as long as discharges are within permitted limits and are enforced according to the provisions of the Clean Water Act. Unregulated and indiscriminate groundwater and surface water extraction has been identified as a threat to spring species (see Factor A discussion above). Within the State of Alabama, regulations concerning groundwater issues are limited (Alabama Law Review 1997, p. 1). Alabama common law follows a “reasonable use rule” for the extraction of groundwater, and there is a statutory framework that regulates and governs groundwater extraction (Chapmanet al.2005, p. 9; Alabama Water Resources Act, Code of Alabama, sections 9-10B-1et seq.). Water users must file a declaration of beneficial use, be issued a certificate of use, and be permitted and monitored periodically. The Alabama Water Commission can place restrictions on certificates of use in certain designated water capacity stressed areas; however, the Alabama Water Commission has not identified any stressed groundwater areas in or near spring pygmy sunfish habitat. Large volumes of groundwater continue to be extracted in areas not identified as “stressed groundwater areas” such as the Beaverdam Spring/Creek watershed, and this likely depresses water levels in nearby wells (Hairstonet al.1990, p. 7) and springs (Younger 2007, p. 162). Such groundwater extraction has likely depleted the aquifer that supplies water to Beaverdam Spring and the spring pygmy sunfish. Thus, water use restrictions under common law (Chapmanet al.2005, p. 10) provide marginal protection for the species.

Summary of Factor D

The spring pygmy sunfish and its habitat are afforded limited protection from surface water quality and habitat degradation under Federal and State regulations. Notwithstanding this limited protection, large volumes of groundwater are continually extracted, and these extractions likely threaten the aquifer that supplies water to spring pygmy sunfish habitat. Degradation of habitat within the current range of this species is ongoing despite the protections afforded by these existing laws. Therefore, based on the best scientific and commercial information available, we consider the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms to be a threat to spring pygmy sunfish.

Factor E: Other Natural or Manmade Factors Affecting Its Continued Existence

Impediments to migration, connectivity, and gene flow between or within spring systems are threats to maintaining genetic diversity in the spring pygmy sunfish. Habitat connectivity is critical to maintaining heterozygosity (genetic diversity) within populations of the species and reducing inbreeding, thereby maintaining the integrity of the population (Hallerman 2003, pp. 363-364). Connectivity of spring pygmy sunfish habitats is also necessary for improvement in water quality through flushing and diluting pollutants and increasing water quantity, and by linking spring segments together. Connectivity maintains water flow between Beaverdam Spring/Creek habitats and allows for potential colonization of unoccupied areas when conditions become favorable for the species. Mechanical fragmentation of the habitat has formed smaller, isolated subpopulations of spring pygmy sunfish. Localized environmental changes caused by agriculture, urbanization, and other anthropogenic disturbances of the spring systems throughout the watersheds of the Eastern Highland Rim have exacerbated fragmentation of spring habitat (Sandel 2011, pp. 3-6; 2008, pp. 2-4, 13). Over time, this fragmentation of the spring pygmy sunfish's habitat will impose negative selective pressures on the species' populations, such as genetic isolation; reduction of space for rearing, recruitment, and reproduction; reduction of adaptive capabilities; and increased likelihood of local extinctions (Sandel 2011, pp. 8-10; Burkheadet al.1997, pp. 397-399).

Climate Change

“Climate” refers to an area's long-term average weather statistics (typically for at least 20- or 30-year periods), including the mean and variation of surface variables such as temperature, precipitation, and wind; “climate change” refers to a change in the mean or variability or both of climate properties that persists for an extended period (typically decades or longer), whether due to natural processes or human activity (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007a, p. 26). Although changes in climate occur continuously over geological time, changes are now occurring at an accelerated rate. For example, at continental, regional, and ocean basin scales, recent observed changes in long-term trends include: A substantial increase in precipitation in eastern parts of North American and South America, northern Europe, and northern and central Asia, and an increase in intense tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic since about 1970 (IPCC 2007a, p. 30); and an increase in annual average temperature of more than 2 °F(1.1 °C) across United States since 1960 (Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (GCCIUS) 2009, p. 27). Examples of observed changes in the physical environment include: An increase in global average sea level, and declines in mountain glaciers and average snow cover in both the northern and southern hemispheres (IPCC 2007a, p. 30); substantial and accelerating reductions in Arctic sea-ice (e.g., Comisoet al.2008, p. 1); and a variety of changes in ecosystem processes, the distribution of species, and the timing of seasonal events (e.g., GCCIUS 2009, pp. 79-88).

The IPCC used Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Models and various greenhouse gas emissions scenarios to make projections of climate change globally and for broad regions through the 21st century (Randallet al.2007, pp. 596-599), and reported these projections using a framework for characterizing certainty (Solomonet al.2007, pp. 22-23). For example: (1) It is virtually certain there will be warmer and more frequent hot days and nights over most of the earth's land areas; (2) it is very likely there will be increased frequency of warm spells and heat waves over most land areas, and the frequency of heavy precipitation events will increase over most areas; and (3) it is likely that increases will occur in the incidence of extreme high sea level (excludes tsunamis), intense tropical cyclone activity, and the area affected by droughts (IPCC 2007b, p. 8, Table SPM.2). More recent analyses using a different global model and comparing other emissions scenarios resulted in similar projections of global temperature change across the different approaches (Prinnet al.2011, pp. 527, 529).

All models (not just those involving climate change) have some uncertainty associated with projections due to assumptions used, data available, and features of the models; with regard to climate change this includes factors such as assumptions related to emissions scenarios, internal climate variability, and differences among models. Despite this, however, under all global models and emissions scenarios, the overall projected trajectory of surface air temperature is one of increased warming compared to current conditions (Meehlet al.2007, p. 762; Prinnet al.2011, p. 527). Climate models, emissions scenarios, and associated assumptions, data, and analytical techniques will continue to be refined, as will interpretations of projections, as more information becomes available. For instance, some changes in conditions are occurring more rapidly than initially projected, such as melting of Arctic sea-ice (Comisoet al.2008, p. 1; Polyaket al.2010, p. 1797), and since 2000, the observed emissions of greenhouse gases, which are a key influence on climate change, have been occurring at the mid- to higher levels of the various emissions scenarios developed in the late 1990s and used by the IPCC for making projections (e.g., Raupachet al.2007, Figure 1, p. 10289; Manninget al.2010, Figure 1, p. 377; Pielkeet al.2008, entire). Also, the best scientific and commercial data available indicate that average global surface air temperature is increasing and several climate-related changes are occurring and will continue for many decades even if emissions are stabilized soon (e.g., Meehlet al.2007, pp. 822-829; Churchet al.2010, pp. 411-412; Gillettet al.2011, entire).

Changes in climate can have a variety of direct and indirect impacts on species, and can exacerbate the effects of other threats. Rather than assessing “climate change” as a single threat in and of itself, we examine the potential consequences to species and their habitats that arise from changes in environmental conditions associated with various aspects of climate change. For example, climate-related changes to habitats, predator-prey relationships, disease and disease vectors, or conditions that exceed the physiological tolerances of a species, occurring individually or in combination, may affect the status of a species. Vulnerability to climate change impacts is a function of sensitivity to those changes, exposure to those changes, and adaptive capacity (IPCC 2007, p. 89; Glicket al.2011, pp. 19-22). As described above, in evaluating the status of a species, the Service uses the best scientific and commercial data available, and this includes consideration of direct and indirect effects of climate change. As is the case with all potential threats, if a species is currently affected or is expected to be affected by one or more climate-related impacts, this does not necessarily mean the species is an endangered or threatened species as defined under the Act. If a species is listed as endangered or threatened, this knowledge regarding its vulnerability to, and impacts from, climate-associated changes in environmental conditions can be used to help devise appropriate strategies for its recovery.

While we do not have specific information concerning the effect of climate change on spring pygmy sunfish and its habitat, we do know that climate affects groundwater budgets (inflow and outflow) by influencing precipitation and evaporation and, therefore, the rates and distribution of recharge of the aquifer. Climate also affects human demands for groundwater and affects plant transpiration from shallow groundwater in response to solar energy and changing depths to the water table (Likens 2009, p. 91). Chronic regional drought between 2000 and 2005 within the Tennessee Valley decreased rates of surface water flow and aquifer recharge. Water extraction (of both groundwater and surface water) during drought periods exacerbated damage to the spring pygmy sunfish and its habitat (Sandel 2009, p. 15).

Long-term droughts have impacts on groundwater by increasing groundwater extraction for public consumption and agriculture, which in turn does not replenish surface waters (Likens 2009, p. 91). The prolonged drought within northern Alabama during 2006 to 2008 was exceptional (Jandebeur 2012, p. 13) and, along with the severe drought of 1950 to 1963 (Jandebeur 2012, p. 13), may have contributed to the demise of the Pryor Spring/Branch population of the spring pygmy sunfish by increasing toxic concentrations of herbicides and by increasing the desiccation of aquatic vegetation.

Conservation Efforts To Reduce or Eliminate Other Natural or Manmade Factors

The CCAA will likely reduce some of the threats to groundwater caused by climate change within the upper portion of the species' range by minimizing impacts and helping to maintain groundwater recharge of the aquifer, protecting surface water flow, and limiting groundwater extraction. Under the CCAA, the Service will provide technical assistance and groundwater management advice. Addition