In a move that could affect major planned developments in Southern California, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday proposed designating 5.4 million acres throughout the state as critical habitat for the threatened California red-legged frog.
The habitat would be the state's largest, and among the nation's biggest, for a threatened species. The government has designated 6.8 million acres as habitat critical to the northern spotted owl in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
The proposed frog habitat would stretch across portions of Los Angeles, Ventura and 29 other counties from Redding to the Mexican border.
Among the proposed developments that could be affected by the habitat designation are Los Angeles County's largest, the 22,000 home Newhall Ranch in the Santa Clarita Valley, and the 3,050-home Ahmanson Ranch project in Ventura County.
Statewide, "over 70% of California wetlands have been destroyed," said Peter Galvin, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, a Berkeley environmental group. "This is, we feel, a very significant and important step to turning around the decline of the red-legged frog and California wetlands."
Under a U.S. "critical habitat" designation, a landowner seeking federal permits must prove that a project will not harm the designated species or its habitat. The activities that can be curbed include water transfers or diversions, construction projects and recreation.
Leaders of a home-building group said they fear that the designation could cause financial losses for their industry.
"Our concern is [that] the economic impact of these collectively on the state as a whole could be astronomical," said David Smith, general counsel for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, which has 1,800 members. "Our concern is that the Fish and Wildlife Service is going to continue their failure to recognize economic impacts."
Exactly how much effect the designation might have on the Newhall Ranch project was not immediately clear.
"The California red-legged frog has never been sighted on our properties," said Marlee Lauffer, spokeswoman for Newhall Land & Farming Co., the developer of the project.
Lauffer said the company has not yet had a chance to study the proposed habitat. If Newhall Ranch falls within its boundaries, "obviously we will have to study that and work through the process," she said.
Tim McGarry, a vice president at Washington Mutual, the developer of the Ahmanson Ranch, said his company is already following the regulations that a critical habitat designation would impose. About 20 adult frogs and 100 tadpoles have been found in and around East Las Virgenes Creek within the development area, he said.
"Because we have a population, we have long recognized that we are subject to the requirements of the Endangered Species Act," McGarry said. "There are a number of steps we're going through to develop plans to preserve the species."
Although the Fish and Wildlife Service has outlined the habitat's boundaries in California, final acreage would be determined after a public review, comment period and further study, said Curt McCasland, a biologist with the federal agency.
Millions of red-legged frogs once populated the Central Valley, but they have been wiped out, McCasland said. Nearly all of those in the Sierra Nevada and Southern California have also disappeared, he said.
The species is the largest native frog in the Western United States, up to 5 inches long. The frogs are olive, brown, gray or reddish-black with small black flecks. Some have red or salmon legs.
The red-legged frog is widely believed to be the species that inspired Mark Twain's short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." But beginning about 100 years ago, the animals were caught and frequently eaten as a delicacy and their habitat has been diminished by encroaching urbanization, McCasland said.
Federal officials say only one population in Southern California is now confirmed--at a preserve in western Riverside County managed by the Nature Conservancy.
About 40% of the 5.4 million acres proposed as habitat is public land managed by federal, state or local governments; the rest is in private hands.
The proposed designation comes in response to a federal court order in a case filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups that sued the federal government to protect the frog.
Under the federal Endangered Species Act, once a species is listed, a habitat must be designated.
However, the Fish and Wildlife Service has not determined those habitats for many species, resulting in hundreds of lawsuits, said Jan Erik Hasselman, attorney for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit environmental law firm based in San Francisco.
In many cases, including that of the red-legged frog, the service has said it delayed designating habitat because doing so could have resulted in vandalism or collection of the wildlife.