A federal judge has ordered the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to identify and protect habitat for the threatened California red-legged frog. The order came as a result of a lawsuit filed by five conservation groups concerned about the frog's decline and the continuing destruction of its delicate habitat throughout California.
The Court criticized the Service for failing to recognize the benefits of critical haitat designation for the frog. "The designation would itself inform the public as well as state and local governments about locations and habitat needs of imperiled species. Where the public is educated as to the location and specific habitat needs of imperiled species at risk, inadvertent acts of destruction may be avoided." The Court rejected the Service's effort to reconsider, on its own extended schedule, its decision not to designate critical habitat. The Court stated, "The Service has had ample opportunity to reevaluate its decision of its own accord; now it must do so by order of the Court."
The California red-legged frog is the largest native frog in the western United States, and once could be commonly found throughout much of California. Mark Twain secured the frog's literary reputation in his short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." Today, the California red-legged frog can be found only in isolated pockets along the coast, with a few scattered survivors in the Sierra Nevada.
"The ruling will help prevent the extinction of the frog in the Sierra Nevada. Red-legged frogs were once found in creeks and ponds up and down the range, and we want to make sure that this famous frog is once again as common as in the days of Mark Twain," said Deanna Spooner with the Pacific Rivers Council.
"This important ruling will have impacts through a substantial portion of California," noted David Dilworth with Responsible Consumer of the Monterrey Peninsula. "Historically, the frog could be found in 46 counties, from the Sierra to the coast, and its habitat is threatened by all sorts of activities. Finally, this habitat will receive the protection it deserves."
"We're looking forward to working cooperatively with the Fish and Wildlife Service in bringing our celebrated jumper back home," said Dr. Robert Stack, executive director of the Calaveras County-based Jumping Frog Research Institute. California red-legged frogs have not been seen in Calaveras County since 1975. "Twain's frog is part of our ecological, literary, and cultural heritage, but without meaningful habitat protection, it may hop right into history."
While the lawsuit represents a victory for the frog, many groups remain deeply concerned about habitat protection for other species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Peter Galvin with the Center for Biological Diversity noted, "While the law requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect habitat that is vital to the survival and recovery of our imperiled species, the Service is notoriously reluctant to do so. Less than ten percent of threatened and endangered species have these important habitat protections in place."
"Since April 1996, the Fish and Wildlife Service has not once designated critical habitat without being sued," added Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund attorney Jan Hasselman, who represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "While we are relieved that Twain's frog will finally receive the attention that it deserves, the Service's rigid – and illegal – hostility to habitat protection has to stop."
The case, Jumping Frog Research Institute v. Babbitt, was heard by Judge William Alsup in federal district court in San Francisco. The plaintiffs included Jumping Frog Research Institute, Pacific Rivers Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, and Responsible Consumers of the Monterrey Peninsula. Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund represented the plaintiffs.
Artwork of the red-legged frog is available via email. Please contact: Brian Smith at Earthjustice (415) 627-6700