Celebrated for its jumping and protected for its scarcity, the California red-legged frog won critical habitat designation Tuesday on more than 4 million acres of the state.
The red-legged frog already was listed as “threatened,” but the new designation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service exposes developers to greater federal scrutiny by mapping out where frog populations live or could recover.
The final plan on 4.1 million acres was scaled back from a proposed 5.4 million acres. It does not cover the county where Mark Twain set his classic tale “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
That irony was not lost on federal officials.
“We hope to work with many people in Calaveras County who have expressed to us they would like to have Mark Twain’s frog come home,” said Patricia Foulk of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The government had to develop the habitat plan after environmental groups successfully sued, claiming the government had to declare a critical habitat for any species protected under the Endangered Species Act. The amphibians are considered an important indicator species of the health of aquatic areas.
Environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, said they were pleased with the ruling but were disappointed parts of the Sierra Nevada – including Calaveras County – were not protected.
The California red-legged frog is believed to be the legendary leaper of Twain’s 1865 short story about “Dan’l Webster,” a frog that could “get over more ground in one straddle than any animal of his breed you ever see.”
There were once millions of the frogs throughout the state, but now there are only four places known to have populations greater than 350, said Peter Galvin, a conservation biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Habitat has declined 70 percent and population has dropped 95 percent owing to sprawl, mining, logging, farming and predators such as fish and bullfrogs.
Once prized as a culinary treat, the population of the largest native frog in the western United States has declined significantly since the bullfrog was introduced in 1896 as a faster breeding alternative. Since then, the red-legged frogs have been “overfrogged, sort of like overfished,” said Robert Stack of the Jumping Frog Research Institute.
“In the end, the bullfrog doesn’t taste as good as the red-legged frog,” Stack said. “But by then, unfortunately, the red-legged frog had been outmuscled and the bullfrog took over a great deal of its habitat.”
Stack said private landowners in Calaveras County have volunteered their property to reintroduce the species, but not everyone in the county shares a love for the red-legged frog, which hasn’t been found in the county for years.
Since 1928, the bullfrog has taken center stage at the Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee. Fair organizers and city officials in Angels Camp lobbied their congressman over concerns that designating the county as a protected area for the red-legged frog would send the bullfrog packing and kill the event credited with bringing $1 million a year to the area.
“To establish red-legged frogs in the area they’d have to kill bullfrogs. That’s tied to our economy,” said Tim Shearer, city administrator for Angels Camp. “If they kill them, the frogs are not there for the tourists.”
The critical habitat includes parts of 28 of the state’s 58 counties, from Tehama and Plumas counties in the north to the Mexican border. About a third of the land is public.
The designation would affect proposed development only if it requires a federal permit.
The agency could place restrictions on a proposed development if it is potentially valuable frog habitat — even if no frogs live on it.
A construction industry group that commented extensively on the proposed regulations said it would review the regulations and decide whether to contest them.
“We still have grave concerns about it,” said David Smith, general counsel for the Building Industry Legal Defense Foundation. “Because the (Fish and Wildlife) Service blurs the line and treats unoccupied habitat like occupied, land that should be free of regulation is inappropriately pulled in.”
On the Net:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: http://www.r1.fws.gov/news
Center for Biological Diversity:
Jumping Frog Research Institute: http://jumpingfrog.org/