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Decision Saves Frog-Jumping Competition From Croaking

The event's fate was in doubt because of a law banning release of nonnative species.

February 06, 2003|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

It's no bull. The celebrated jumping frogs of Calaveras County can compete this May and live to leap another day.

In a policy flip-flop, state Fish and Game wardens have found a way around a state law that forbids returning bullfrogs to the wild. Organizers of the annual frog fest feared the law could have led to the death of hundreds of frogs that compete in the whimsical contest inspired by Mark Twain and perhaps terminate the annual event, as well.

"I'm relieved, and so are the frogs," said Warren L. "Buck" King, unofficial mayor of Frogtown and manager of the Calaveras County Fair and Frog Jumping Jubilee. "I tried to blank out of my mind" the possibility of euthanizing frogs. "What a dishonor to the frogs."

The problem started because contestants aren't what they used to be. Instead of the native red-legged frog celebrated in Twain's short story, eastern bullfrogs now fill the ponds in these parts and thus fill out the ranks of the athletic amphibians.

It's not against the law to catch bullfrogs. But putting bullfrogs back into the water is illegal because they are a nonnative species, said Ed Pert, acting chief of the state Department of Fish and Game's fisheries branch. Anyone who releases a nonnative species into the wild faces a $5,000 fine and up to a year behind bars.

The law has not been enforced in the past. This year, however, contest organizers feared a crackdown by Fish and Game officials.

If the 2,000 amphibian athletes could not go back to the wild, many would likely die in captivity or be killed, they said.

King got hopping mad when he was informed of the law. So did other town leaders who have developed a certain fondness for frogs.

The frog-jumping jubilee attracts 40,000 cash-carrying, motel-renting, trinket-buying tourists. The third weekend in May will be the contest's 74th year in Angels Camp, a Gold Rush town in the foothills of the Sierra due east of San Francisco.

So King and other leaders puffed up their chests and raised a ruckus. What about catch-and-release bass tournaments? King asked.

In those events, fishermen pull bass out of the water to weigh and measure them, then put them back. That's not much different, he said, from the activities of frog jockeys, those lunging, bellowing coaches who try to motivate their frogs to hop.

Winning frogs need fresh legs, he said. Usually they get caught only a day or two before the contest and afterward are carefully put back into their original pond, reservoir or slough.

Domesticated frogs can't jump. If they get used to people, they get docile and lose the will to flee by jumping.

With all the commotion, Pert turned to the department's lawyers. After a thorough legal review, the lawyers discovered a provision tucked into the California Fish and Game Code in 1957 that basically exempts "frogs to be used in frog-jumping contests" from general wildlife rules.

Pert sent a letter Wednesday telling King that "it is the department's official position that frogs used in the contest are not subject to prohibitions on release" into the wild and that people who do so "will not be subject to fines or other enforcement actions."

In an interview, Pert said he still will try to work with contest organizers to minimize the threat that nonnative frogs pose to the native amphibians.

Biologists believe that the eastern bullfrogs, brought to California in the late 1800s, have contributed to the loss of the red-legged frog, now so rare that it's on the federal endangered species list. The bigger bullfrogs eat juvenile red-legged frogs and out-compete them for food.

Other threats come from loss of wetlands habitat, climate change and pesticides.

Biologists also worry that bullfrogs brought to the contest could accelerate the spread of illnesses that infect amphibians. "It's like bringing your kid to day care and then you bring him home and everyone gets sick," Pert said.

King said he is happy to work with state biologists. He will show them how delicately he cares for the 300 to 400 frogs he houses in a frog hotel under the fairground's main stage. Those are the core athletes for the rent-a-frog business, offered to casual competitors who don't bring their own. The pros who bring in their own ringers also coddle their would-be champions, he said.

Mostly, he's grateful he won't have any part of the destruction of any frogs. He already faces pressure from animal-rights activists who object to the contest as cruel. Protesters might try to shut it down altogether if it ended up in a mass slaughter, he fears.

After 36 years in the frog-jumping business, "If I had a part in that," he said, "the frog god would come down and croak me."

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