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Town Won't Jump at Plan to Reintroduce Red-Legged Frogs

Twain's celebrated amphibian has vanished from Calaveras County. Some residents fear its return could harm bullfrogs and the famous contest.

January 05, 2003|Don Thompson | Associated Press Writer

ANGELS CAMP, Calif. — When Mark Twain published "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" in 1865, the frog helped make him famous, and he returned the favor.

Since then, the frog has made the county famous, drawing upward of 40,000 visitors to fill motels, restaurants and shops full of frog trinkets for the annual May frog-jumping contest at a fairgrounds dubbed Frogtown.

But scientists believe the amphibian that inspired Twain's tale -- the once-common California red-legged frog -- has disappeared from Calaveras County and much of the Sierra, forcing the contest to use bullfrogs.

As the county has capitalized on Twain's fame, environmentalists and scientists have seized on the famous frog to illustrate the dangers facing an "indicator species" they use to gauge the health of the Sierra environment.

Now, residents are debating a proposal to reintroduce the largest native Western species to the county it made famous -- a plan opposed by local officials who fear it might harm the annual jumping contest and area development.

The sidewalks in this historic Sierra foothills mining town are literally lined with frogs -- painted green ones and, since last year, bronze plaques mimicking Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

The world-record holder, "Rosie the Ribiter," has a plaque for her 21 feet, 5 3/4-inch triple jump. There's a standing $5,000 prize offered for any frog that breaks the record that has stood since 1986.

But Twain's legendary frog has the place of honor, right outside the Angels Hotel.

The hotel's bar was frequented in the autumn of 1865 by budding journalist Samuel Clemens, who was then living in a cabin in nearby Jackass Hill.

The bar is where he heard the tall tale that he turned into a short story about a frog called Dan'l Webster, "whirling in the air like a doughnut" during one of its jumps that could "get over more ground in one straddle than any animal of his breed you ever see."

Genetics researcher and consultant Robert J. Stack was so intrigued by the frog after he moved to Calaveras County that he formed the Jumping Frog Research Institute.

He's since been a party in lawsuits over protecting the frog, including the court fight over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed rescue plan that excluded Calaveras County after local officials objected.

"We have an obligation to the frog to see it into the future ... as a tribute to Mark Twain and the frog that put us on the map," said Stack. "I think [in] five years, I'm hoping we can see the first red-legged frog freed in Calaveras County."

He envisions schoolchildren raising the frogs and releasing them into ranch stock ponds as part of a voluntary arrangement that would help protect Sierra foothill range lands from development through conservation easements.

"The way I see it, the future of foothill ranching and the red-legged frog are inextricably linked," Stack said.

The way others see it, his plan is a formula for intrusive government oversight and a threat to the nonnative bullfrogs that have taken over much of the red-legged frogs' habitat.

The bullfrogs would have to be removed or killed wherever the red-legged frog is reintroduced.

But controlling bullfrogs in a particular pond could be as simple as letting the pond go dry every few years -- an event that red-legged frogs can survive, but bullfrogs cannot.

Stack's dream is a potential nightmare for Warren "Buck" King, the unofficial "Frogtown mayor" who manages the Calaveras County Fair and Frog Jumping Jubilee. He has helped lead opposition to the reintroduction for fear "it could mean the demise of the frog jump."

Each May, as many as 2,000 frogs are set to jumping at the Frogtown fairgrounds, an echo of the first frog-jumping contest the local booster club organized in 1928 to celebrate the paving of Main Street through the old Gold Rush town.

"The frog is what has made Calaveras County and Mark Twain famous, and it's been a good match," said King, a booster club member who has been involved with the fair and jumping contest for 32 years.

But King said there's no proof Twain's frog had red legs. "It was a fictitious story, and it wasn't based on a real incident." He suspects environmentalists are using the frog to get publicity for more environmental protections.

Stack counters that the red-legged frog can be reintroduced without eradicating the bullfrog beyond isolated ponds, and that the reintroduction would be a publicity boon for the county and the contest.

"The bullfrog is the frog of the frog-jump, no doubt about it," Stack said. However, "I think the most wonderful thing in the world would be to have the red-legged frog challenge the bullfrog in a grudge match."

The red-legged frog was killed off in part because San Franciscans found its large legs quite tasty around the turn of the last century.

Entrepreneurs of the time imported even larger, but less delectable, bullfrogs from east of the Rockies to feed the frog-leg craze. Descendants of the newcomers also helped drive out the red-legged natives.

Today, scientists say competition, habitat loss, climate change, ultraviolet radiation and windblown pesticides are devastating not only the red-legged frog, but other frog species throughout the Sierra.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says the frog's historical range has shrunk 70%. Though it still can be found in 256 drainages, most are in enclaves along the north-central coast, and the Center for Biological Diversity says there are now only four places known to have populations greater than 350.

"There's quite a few along the coastal areas, and I say, well, Mother Nature made a decision. Why introduce them here when they might not do so well?" King asked.

"They should just let Mother Nature move the frog, not Fish and Game."

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