Mark Jennings, the Indiana Jones of the frog world, scaled two waterfalls to reach a remote canyon of the San Gabriel Mountains, only to find his worst nightmare confirmed.
"Nice stream. No frogs," he said. A floppy felt hat shaded sunlight from his ruddy face. Big Mermaids Creek washed its cold waters around his boots. "It's not like they are hiding. They're just gone."
Jennings, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has spent the summer counting frogs in the Angeles National Forest. Along with Bonnie Dombrowski of the U.S. Forest Service, he is documenting the disappearance of the creatures, especially three varieties once abundant throughout the state:
There's your foothill yellow-legged frog, your mountain yellow-legged frog and your California red-legged frog.
Anyone who doubts that Jennings is truly the Frog Man of California should check his scientific paper that sought to show, among other things, that when Mark Twain wrote about "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," he was talking about the red-legged one.
Jennings insists: "It wasn't Mark Twain who made the frog famous. It was the frog who made Mark Twain famous."
He points out that there are none left in that Northern California county, one of the trends that fuels his passion for scouring the state for frogs--and petitioning the government about them.
Last month, the 37-year-old Jennings won a major victory when federal officials announced a proposal to list the California red-legged frog as threatened or give it the most protective classification--endangered.
A July 19 notice in the Federal Register said habitat loss, predators, inadequate regulations, drought and recreational activities "imperil the continued existence of the red-legged frog."
Jennings and other scientists say that floods, disease, and acid rain also contribute to the demise of the red-legged, along with other species of frogs and toads. And many are being eaten by descendants of East Coast bullfrogs imported in the 19th Century, he said.
With a final decision on the red-legged's status expected within a few months, an "endangered" finding could provoke controversy if it poses an obstacle to development, as other such designations have. The federal agency also is considering if the foothill and mountain yellow-legged frogs merit further study to determine if they too should be listed as threatened or endangered.
In every case, Jennings has been among the loudest voices asking the government to declare a crisis. Yet even he acknowledges that saving frogs and toads doesn't have quite the same environmental cachet as protecting the more majestic whale, wolf or grizzly.
"People ask: 'What good is a frog?' " he said.
Jennings cites the evidence that he and a colleague marshaled from 1988 to 1991, when they conducted a state-financed study of amphibians in California. "Native frogs are in big trouble," he said. Even common tree frogs, usually abundant, have begun to disappear.
To him, like the dying canary that warns miners of an oxygen shortage, the steady disappearance of frogs and toads in Southern California may signal the demise of the region's ecosystems.
To monitor such developments, he and Dombrowski trek where few people go.
On a recent day, they bushwhacked their way through Big Mermaids Creek, thick with grass, alders, boulders and fallen trees. "Everything is here, except grizzly bear, wolves, condor and true frogs," Jennings said. "It's not a whole ecosystem."
Wading up to his knees, he scooped up a two-striped garter snake and put it in a plastic bag for study.
The snake eats frogs and tadpoles. A shortage of frogs means snakes have less to eat. This robs other snakes, raccoons and birds of food. The implications, he said, travel eerily up and down the forest food chain. "You lose all these, and your ecosystem is going to fall apart," he said.
A tawny newt circled his boots underwater. A granite-colored tree frog hopped into the muddy tracks made by a rare Nelson bighorn sheep.
To get to one of the few places he thought the frogs might be left--the rugged San Gabriel Wilderness, 36,500 acres of the Angeles National Forest--Jennings had hammered pitons into the rocky face of one waterfall about 30 feet high and used a rope to scale it. To climb another fall, he and Dombrowski fashioned a ladder from downed logs and stakes.
"There has to be frogs in here," Dombrowski said, fighting her way through tall green grass whose sharp blades bloodied her hands. "If you were a frog, wouldn't you be in here?"
"No, I'd be dead," said Jennings, dejected after more than five hours of meticulously studying the stream and its banks. In the late 1970s, the frogs he sought had been spotted along nearby Bear Creek. This summer, he has found none on either creek, although he found two tiny groups elsewhere in the San Gabriels.