Twain's Frog Gets Reduced Living Space

Experts say new habitat decision threatens frog's survival


Michael Sherwood, Attorney, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6725
Deanna Spooner, Conservation Director, Pacific Rivers Council, (541) 345-0119

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced today that it has slashed habitat protection for the California red-legged frog, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The Service cited a biased and controversial economic analysis as justification for cutting the original designation from 4.1 million acres down to 450,288 acres, a reduction of 90 percent.

“The Fish & Wildlife Service once again is playing favorites, enabling developers and other special interests to convert frog habitat to parking lots, while overlooking the costs habitat destruction will impose on the rest of us,” said Ernie Niemi, Managing Director of ECONorthwest, an economics consulting firm that reviewed the Service’s economic analysis. “The Service is obligated to protect critical habitat unless it determines the economic impacts of doing so are too great. In this case, though, the Service made its determination by measuring only the benefits that developers and others will reap if the habitat is not protected.”

“This decision paves the way for further habitat destruction by special interests, leaving taxpayers to pay the bill for cleaning up the mess,” Niemi added.

“The best estimates indicate that California red-legged frogs have been eliminated from over 75 percent of their historic range and many of the remaining populations represent remnants whose survival is precarious. Yet, at best, the Fish & Wildlife Service’s habitat designation is a token effort that can secure few existing populations without any real hope of recovering the species,” said scientist Marc Hayes, an expert on California red-legged frogs.

“In today’s backdrop of climate change and emergent diseases, including the chytrid fungus that is eliminating frog species on a global scale (the fungus has already been found in some California red-legged frog populations), it is crucial that populations be buffered from the unexpected changes in the global landscape by providing enough habitat to allow species recovery,” Hayes added. “A genuine effort must also extend beyond protection of limited critical habitat to restore habitats that are currently unoccupied – particularly those located between isolated California red-legged frog populations – to stop the rapid trend toward extinction.”

“Children growing up in California should be able to see the frog made famous by Mark Twain in its native habitat, not just read about it in books,” said Deanna Spooner, Conservation Director for the Pacific Rivers Council. “Frogs, just like people, need someplace to live. Opening up their habitat to further development pushes them that much closer to extinction – and unlike people, frogs can’t pack up and move if someone builds a strip mall next door, they just go extinct.”

In 2001, under a court order, the Fish & Wildlife Service designated 4.1 million acres of critical habitat for the California red-legged frog. But in 2002 the Service, responding to a lawsuit brought by the Homebuilders Association of Northern California, reversed its decision and removed protection from all but 199,000 acres of the frog’s habitat. The Service released a series of proposals, beginning in 2004 and ending with today’s announcement, first reinstating the original 4.1 million acre designation then doing an about face and shrinking it down to 450,228 acres, in violation of the letter and intent of the Endangered Species Act.

“It’s taken 10 years and several court orders for the Fish & Wildlife Service to fulfill its legal obligation to designate critical habitat for the California red-legged frog, and still the agency didn’t get it right,” said Mike Sherwood, an attorney with Earthjustice who represented the coalition that sued the federal government for habitat protection. “The service has once again ignored the best available science, not to mention its own recovery plan. Essential habitat that the frog needs to recover to a healthy population was not protected, in violation of the law.”

“Critical habitat can be the most effective tool for recovering endangered species, but this designation amounts to an extinction plan for the red-legged frog,” said Jeff Miller, Bay Area Wildlands Coordinator with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Despite the fact that habitat destruction is the main reason for the frog’s decline, the Bush Administration has excluded from today’s decision much of the areas necessary for the long-term survival and recovery of the frog.”

The groups represented by Earthjustice are Pacific Rivers Council, Jumping Frog Research Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation.

Read the Federal Register notice here

To download ECONorthwest’s assessment of the economic analysis

For digital images of the California red-legged frog go here and click on “California red-legged frog”


Both Frogs and People Can Have Homes – Examples of Successful California Red-Legged Frog Habitat Protection Efforts

The City of Pacifica – Frog Habitat Protection Saves City & Taxpayers Money

The City of Pacifica, just a few minutes drive south of San Francisco, has undertaken several restoration projects along Calera Creek and San Pedro Creek that have successfully boosted California red-legged frog numbers to the benefit of Pacifica’s taxpayers and overall quality of life.


Scott Holmes, Director of Public Works, City of Pacifica

Cell phone 650-922-6454, email

Scott Holmes, Director of Public Works for the City of Pacifica, says they have found that with just minimal restoration the frogs flourish. For example, the City embarked on the Calera creek habitat restoration project 10 years ago. It encompasses 16 acres of restored riparian (or streamside) habitat plus 12 acres of upland habitat. Before restoration was started only 2 adult California red-legged frogs were found in the project area; now adult frogs are found in the thousands.

The San Pedro creek restoration project has a similar storyline. In 1995, planning began for the 14-acre site, with the restoration work finished in 2000. Whereas before the work began they found only 1 adult frog, now there are hundreds.

Why is the City doing this?

“It’s very satisfying,” says Holmes. “The City can blend public works projects with habitat restoration that is mutually beneficial.”

“Making habitat restoration part of public works projects is cheaper than eliminating the species and buying mitigation habitat at another location,” Holmes added. “With the San Pedro Project, for example, habitat restoration cost $3 million, but it would have cost $5-6 million (twice as much) to destroy the habitat and try to recreate it elsewhere.”

Spivey Pond, Sierra Nevada

The American Rivers Conservancy manages a 63-acre pond site (Spivey Pond) hosting one of the two known reproductive populations of the California red-legged frog within the Sierra Nevada.


Alan Ehrgott, Executive Director,

American Rivers Conservancy

Phone (530) 621-1224, email

In 1997, the Spivey Family set about to log their 54 acre parcel, but when a population of threatened California red-legged frogs was discovered, they worked with the Forest Service and the American Rivers Conservancy to help protect the frogs. The Conservancy eventually acquired the property in 1998 and transferred the land to the Bureau of Land Management shortly thereafter. Subsequently, a management plan for the property was collaboratively developed by a group composed of local, state, and federal entities. In October 2004, the Conservancy built a second pond downstream of the larger older pond in hopes of enhancing and expanding habitat for the frog. In the Spring of 2005, pacific treefrogs and California newts were breeding in the new pond. Surveys for the California red-legged frog will begin when the snow starts to melt later this Spring.

More About the Frog

The California red-legged frog is the nation’s most famous amphibian, due to a short story penned by Mark Twain in 1865 titled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” In this tale, Twain weaves an uproarious yarn about Jim Smiley and his (presumably) red-legged frog, named Dan’l Webster, who could out-jump any frog in Calaveras county. This was Twain’s first story to win widespread acclaims and to this day is taught to school children around the country.

Once found throughout California, the frog has been extirpated from 75% of its historic range and has lost 90% of its previously robust numbers. Historically, it was found throughout the western Sierra at elevations of up to 913 m., the Central Valley, and all along the coast. Currently, the only strong breeding populations remaining are found along the coast from San Mateo to San Luis Obispo counties. The frog is believed extinct in the Central Valley and is almost completely extirpated from the Sierra Nevada (99% loss of historic range).

The California red-legged frog prefers ponds, marshes, and creeks with still water. It requires riparian and upland areas with dense vegetation and open areas for cover, aestivation (summertime hibernation), food, and basking. Undisturbed riparian vegetation is also necessary for female frogs to attach their egg masses, which float on the water surface until hatched (5-7 months).

Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1996, a recovery plan wasn’t finalized for the California red-legged frog until 2002. Primary threats to the frog include:

  • Introduction of predatory non-native species (such as bull frogs);

  • Habitat loss due to development, dams and diversions, mining, road/trail construction, livestock grazing, and timber harvests; and

  • General population fragmentation.

  • Protection and restoration of habitat – particularly between isolated populations – are key components of the recovery plan.

Additional Contacts:

Ernie Niemi, Managing Director, ECONorthwest, (541) 687-0051

Marc P. Hayes, Ph.D., Research Scientist, (360) 902-2567

Scott Holmes, Director of Public Works, City of Pacifica, (650) 922-6454

Alan Ehrgott, Executive Director, American Rivers Conservancy, (530) 621-1224

Jeff Miller, Bay Area Wildlands Coordinator, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185

Additional Resources

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