In a decision filed November 6, 2002, environmental groups seeking to retain more than 4 million acres of critical habitat designated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for California’s threatened red-legged frog were dealt a significant set-back by federal court in Washington D.C. Judge Richard Leon’s ruling approves a sweetheart deal entered into between the Home Builders and the Service from which conservationists were excluded to redo its study of the designation’s economic impacts, and nullifies all but 200,000 acres of critical habitat protection for the frog until that study is completed.
“It’s a sad day for California’s natural heritage,” said Mike Sherwood, Earthjustice attorney who argued the case on behalf of several environmental organizations. “The builders got exactly what they wanted — carte blanche to continue to destroy the habitat of a species already reduced to living on a small fraction of its historic range.”
Critical habitat for this amphibian species, widely believed to be Mark Twain’s Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, was established in March 2001 after a series of lengthy public hearings and thorough scientific review. Environmental groups had litigated for years to gain this protection for California’s vanishing, literary amphibian under the Endangered Species Act.
Only three months later, the Home Builders Association of Northern California and other development interests filed suit in Washington, D.C. to overturn the designation, which protected watersheds in 28 counties and many of the remaining freshwater streams and wetlands in the San Francisco Bay Area and Coast Ranges. The frog’s critical habitat also included some of the last remaining wetlands in California, 90 percent of which have already been destroyed.
“As far as our frogs are concerned, the Home Builders may be better described as the home wreckers,” said Dr. Robert Stack, of the Jumping Frog Research Institute. “Shouldn’t we be seeking to balance the need for human homes with the need to provide the same for our beloved frog?”
Earthjustice intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of several conservation groups including: the Jumping Frog Research Institute, the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, the Pacific Rivers Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club.
“We do not believe this decision reflects the intent of Congress when it passed the Endangered Species Act,” said Sherwood, who represented the coalition at the October 2002 hearing before Judge Leon. “The court has decided to put the economic interests of California’s developers ahead of protection for a threatened species, which runs counter to the Act. Without critical habitat protection, the frog is at the mercy of developers. One day, the only place left to see this famous frog may be the zoo.”
The fight to conserve the frog’s habitat is not over. Conservationists will press the Service to re-establish adequate critical habitat upon completing the new economic analysis.