The U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Wednesday ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to comply with its legal obligation under the Endangered Species Act to decide whether the Yosemite toad and the Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog deserve listing as protected species. The Service was ordered to make these decisions no later than November 30, 2002 for the Yosemite toad and January 10, 2003 for the mountain yellow-legged frog.
The Court agreed the Service had missed deadlines but adopted the schedule proposed by the Service due to budget considerations. The court did however invite the plaintiffs to bring to its attention any significant change in the species’ condition prior to these deadlines. Under the ESA, listing decisions can be accelerated if an emergency exists which presents a significant risk to the well-being of any species.
“Unfortunately there are politics keeping the frog and toad from getting the protection they deserve. Politicians who don’t like the Endangered Species Act are starving the program to death and the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t have enough money to do their job,” said Laura Hoehn, lead attorney for Earthjustice. “Congress should step in to fully fund the program responsible for protecting our natural heritage before the web of life loses another component.”
The mountain yellow-legged frog was historically the most abundant frog in the Sierra Nevada, distributed widely in high elevation lakes and streams from Plumas to Tulare Counties. Recent surveys have found that the species has disappeared from 70 to 90 percent of its former habitat. Remaining frog populations are widely scattered and consist of few breeding adults. What was thought to be one of the largest remaining populations, containing 2000 adult frogs as recently as 1996, has collapsed to only two frogs in a 1999 survey.
The Yosemite toad was once common in the high country of the central Sierra Nevada from Fresno to Alpine Counties. As with the frog, recent surveys reveal that the Yosemite toad has disappeared from a majority of its historic breeding sites. Declines have been especially alarming in Yosemite National Park, thought to be the species’ most pristine and protected stronghold. Both species have been adversely impacted by introduced fish species, which prey on larval and juvenile frogs and toads, while their habitat has been degraded by pesticide pollution, cattle grazing, pathogens, and ozone depletion.
“We’re on the brink of losing what were once the two most common amphibians in the High Sierra,” said Jeff Miller, spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Yosemite toad and mountain yellow-legged frog both clearly warrant immediate listing as endangered. But for now we will have to settle for just getting them into the emergency room waiting area and off the street.”
Earthjustice filed a suit in May 2001 on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Rivers Council to protect the amphibians due to the serious declines of these two species. Environmental groups had sought to have these listing decisions made by March, 2002. The Service, however, argued that it would be unable to comply with such a timetable due to inadequate funding. On October 5, 2000, the Service issued a finding that the listing of both amphibians may be warranted. Since then, however, FWS has been silent, missing its final statutory deadlines for issuing a decision. The agency was required to a make a final determination of listing status by March 2, 2001 for the mountain yellow-legged frog, and by March 6, 2001 for the Yosemite toad.
“The demise of amphibians is one symptom of the degradation of Sierra Nevada watersheds,” said Deanna Spooner of the Pacific Rivers Council. “More than half of the native amphibians in Sierra Nevada watersheds are in serious decline, and in need of formal protection. These same watersheds are also the foundation of California’s drinking water supply and economic life-blood. It’s in our own best interest to protect these species and their habitat.”