In a fight over those who want to set aside land to protect three California amphibians and those who say it threatens public access to the land, it looks like the amphibians have come out the winners.
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At issue are plans by U.S. Fish and Wildlife to designate as critical habitat more than 2 million acres of land for the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog, the “northern distinct population segment” of the mountain yellow-legged frog and the Yosemite toad.
Covering 17 counties, the area under discussion encompasses land in Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Sierra, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras, Alpine, Tulare, Mariposa, Mono, Madera, Tuolumne, Fresno and Inyo.
Last April, U.S. Fish and Wildlife published a rule in the Federal Register designating as critical habitat 2 million acres based on the Endangered Species Act. Subsequently they held public hearings and took comments on the proposal.
According to the agency, the primary threats to these types of amphibians include the introduction of trout populations into essential habitat, disease, the effects of water withdrawals and diversions, timber harvest and fuels reduction activities, livestock grazing, and intensive use by recreationists, including pack stock camping and grazing.
By definition, under the Endangered Species Act, critical habitat is defined as a specific geographic area that is essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species that may require special management considerations or protection. The act is only supposed to impose restrictions on the actions or programs that are authorized, funded, permitted or carried out by a federal agency that may adversely modify that habitat. It is not supposed to affect land ownership or set up a preserve or refuge.
However, those wanting to keep the land open for public use see it differently. Craig Lindsay, who is president of the Western Mining Alliance, claims that once designated as critical habitat, state Fish and Wildlife will start telling people they can’t fish there, walk there, hike there or dredge there.
“There are a cascade of consequences that will happen,” he said, adding that because of a settlement between U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity — the group that sued to protect the amphibians — some 477-plus issues will form the basis of declaring the 2 million acres critical habitat including the well-being of the three amphibians, 40 species of tree snails and a variety of birds that have been declared endangered.
However, Sarah Swenty, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said people misinterpret what critical habitat means. “Critical habitat doesn’t remove land from public use; it just puts other federal agencies on notice that this area is where a species can thrive,” she said. “It encourages other agencies to work with us and coordinate activities such as harvesting land. If a project is planned, it comes to us to review to see how impact on the species can be mitigated. Land does not change ownership and private land does not change ownership. If someone needs a federal permit for something being done on their land, then there would be discussions on how to mitigate any impact to the protected species in the critical habitat area. (But) people will still have access to 2 million acres.”
Swenty went on to say that once the species has recovered, the critical habitat designation goes away. “But if other measures have been taken, such as mitigation measures or land set aside to protect the species in perpetuity, those things stay in place.” However, what the U.S. Forest Service and state agencies do in response is separate from what USFWS does, she added.
But Lindsay takes issue with Swenty’s statement. “While U.S. Fish and Wildlife is correct regarding the designation of critical habitat only meaning that agencies have to coordinate with each other, down the road the consequences will be severe,” Lindsay said.
Citing one example, he said there is an area in the Angeles National Forest called Williamson Rock which has been declared critical habitat for the yellow-legged frog. “It’s one of the premier rock climbing areas in Southern California,” he said, “but has been closed since December 2005 because of a lawsuit won by the Center for Biological Diversity. As a result, the U.S. Forest Service was forced to cordon off the area to protect the frog and its habitat. So it’s not as benign as they think it is.”
Asked if the critical habitat designation would lead to closures, Mitch Lockhart, who is the statewide coordinator of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife High Mountain Lakes Program, said he didn’t know. “It’s a federal process with U.S. Fish and Wildlife leading the charge,” he said, adding that Williamson Rock is under control of the U.S. Forest Service and he wasn’t sure what it will do in response.
Lockhart said the restoration and recovery program he leads has been in effect for a little over a decade and has involved the removal of fish from 44 water bodies. “But that’s not a lot,” he said, “since some of these water bodies are just ponds. We have seen a big increase in (the frog) population in those areas where the problem was the fish. Usually in just a year or two. But the other problem is this fungus that affects the frogs. Recovery is far slower when it is present. The fungal disease was introduced into California 30 or 40 years ago and is very lethal to this amphibian.
“The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit that led to this listing package of the three amphibians. So it doesn’t fit with any conspiracy theory. U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s hand is really being forced in this instance,” said Lockhart.
Agreeing with that Lockhart, Lindsay said, “The Center for Biological Diversity makes its living suing. They have a $6.5 million budget and 25-plus lawyers. All they do is find an animal they consider endangered and go to Fish and Wildlife and say you need to list this animal. The Salazar decision (Center for Biological Diversity v. Salazar) was done behind closed doors. It just happened. That’s how they make their living. There are agencies in Nevada County that do the same thing. That’s how they make their living. And it’s a very comfortable living with executive director fees, chief scientist fees, cars paid for, phones are paid for, mileage is paid for. The Sierra Fund operates the same way. Recently they got a $5.5 million grant to clean mercury from a lake at a cost of $100,000 a pound to get it out of a lake.”
Lindsay noted that the decline in the population of yellow-legged frogs is primarily in high elevation alpine lakes and has been due to the state stocking the lakes with trout who not only competed with the frogs for food, but ate the frogs. A fungus called Bd (amphibian chytrid fungus) took an additional toll on the frog population. Pesticide and herbicide drift has also affected them. The ag industry has a lot of pull in this state so it’s a very complicated issue, he noted.
“I don’t want to get into conspiracy theories and Agenda 21 stuff, but more and more public land is being withdrawn from public use and the only people who are going to be able to use them are those who can hike in … Until people really understand what the issues are and get involved they won’t know how it will affect them directly. That’s why the Western Mining Alliance was formed.”
On April 25, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that in accordance with an agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, both varieties of the yellow-legged frog would be listed as endangered and the Yosemite toad would be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The final rule is expected to become effective on June 20. A final decision on the critical habitat proposal is expected to be made next year.
John Heil, who is the press officer for the Pacific Southwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service, said the Forest Service doesn’t anticipate any changes that would limit the public’s access as a result of U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s recent decision. Nor does it anticipate any other significant changes if the 2 million acres of land is designated as critical habitat, he said.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.