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California and the West

A Patchwork Habitat for Red-Legged Frog

Environment: At 4.1 million acres, area designated by U.S. wildlife service is the state's largest for a threatened species.

March 07, 2001|ANNETTE KONDO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The state's largest habitat for a threatened species, 4.1 million acres, has been declared for the California red-legged frog, federal officials announced Tuesday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in response to a court order, designated the patchwork of habitat that stretches across 28 counties, from the northern half of the state south to Riverside County.

Environmentalists were pleased by the announcement, even though hundreds of thousands of acres of private land were removed from the original 5.4-million-acre proposal. They include large swaths in the Santa Clarita Valley, one of Los Angeles County's fastest-growing regions, and all the habitat proposed for the counties of Sierra, Yuba, and Calaveras--the site of the Mark Twain story that made the frog famous.

"We are generally pleased with the rule. We think it's an important victory for the red-legged frog and the declining amphibian population in California," said Peter Galvin, of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. The center is one of three groups that sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1999 for failure to designate a habitat, as required by the federal Endangered Species Act.

Three military bases--Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, Camp Parks Army Reserve Forces Training Area in Alameda County and the Army National Guard's Camp San Luis Obispo--were also removed from the final habitat decision. Fish and Wildlife officials said that the Vandenberg base, which has a sizable frog population already adequately manages the species, and that including the two other sites in the habitat would adversely impact Army training.

Vocal opponents of the frog habitat proposal--including developers, the agriculture and building industries, recreational enthusiasts and private landowners--blasted the decision.

The federal action makes it more difficult for property owners to build. A landowner seeking federal permits must prove that a project would not harm the designated species or its habitat. Activities that can be restricted or banned include water transfers or diversions and construction projects.

The habitat--which hopscotches across many key agricultural counties including Fresno, Stanislaus, Tehama, Solano, Kern and El Dorado--will add a layer of regulation and planning, said Bruce Blodgett, director of natural resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento. "It will make it more difficult to keep land for farming," he said.

With a housing crisis in the Bay Area, Contra Costa and Alameda counties will be heavily affected by the habitat designation, said Paul Campos, general counsel for the Home Builders Assn. of Northern California. The federal ruling, Campos said, will lead to higher housing costs and infrastructure delays and has the "potential to prevent this region from addressing its existing housing emergency."

In Southern California, Newhall Land & Farming Co., celebrated the removal of its property near San Francisquito Creek from the final habitat. "It looks like none or very little of our property will be included," said Newhall Land spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer.

Originally, more than 206,000 acres of the San Francisquito and Amargosa creeks watershed was proposed for the habitat, much of that privately owned by developers, including Newhall Land. The final habitat encompasses only 105,890 of those acres, almost all within the Angeles National Forest.

Of the 1.3 million acres cut from the originally proposed habitat, Fish and Wildlife officials said 35% to 40% was the result of more accurate mapping.

In the counties where all habitat was removed--Calaveras, Sierra and Yuba--the land ownership was often a checkerboard of private and public lands posing a cumbersome obstacle to managing critical habitat, said the Fish and Wildlife Service's Curt McCasland.

Bob Stack, founder and executive director of the Jumping Frog Research Institute in the Sierra foothills hamlet of Angels Camp, said he was disappointed that the habitat did not include Calaveras County.

The red-legged frog, the largest native frog in the western United States, was thought to have inspired Mark Twain's tale of a jumping-frog contest.

"But even without the critical habitat, we hope to move forward with the reintroduction on publicly owned lands," Stack said. His institute, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service, is developing recovery plans for the species. "We also have received inquiries from private landowners who want to provide a home for our famous native son."

The amphibian, which can grow to 5 inches long, was harvested for its legs as a gourmet delicacy during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1996, the species was declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

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