Millions of Acres Deemed Critical for California Frog

By Cat Lazaroff

SACRAMENTO, California, September 11, 2000 (ENS) - The threatened California red-legged frog, made famous by Mark Twain in a short story, now has a new claim to fame: 5.4 million acres of protected critical habitat in which to recover.

The California red-legged frog, once widespread across the state, is believed to have inspired Mark Twain’s, "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," an animal that could "outjump any frog" in the county after a little "education" from his owner, Jim Smiley, who would lay a wager on anything that moved.


Most historians believe Mark Twain used a California red-legged frog to portray his Celebrated Jumping Frog (Photo by Mark Jennings, courtesy USFWS)
In Twain's story, Smiley lost the bet, and California red-legged frogs as a species have been losing too. None have been seen in Calaveras County since 1975.

Now, in response to a court order, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to designate portions of 31 California counties as necessary for the survival of the frog, which has all but vanished from much of its traditional range.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal "is a major leap forward for the preservation of the California red-legged frog," said Jan Hasselman, an attorney for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

On March 24, 1999, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, on behalf of the Jumping Frog Research Institute, the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for failure to designate critical habitat for the California red-legged frog.

The court ordered the agency to issue a proposal by August 31, 2000, and to issue a final rule by December 29, 2000.

The size of the huge critical habitat proposal - the largest for any species in California, and among the largest in the nation - stems from the rush job the USFWS had to perform to meet the court’s deadlines.

"We had to move fast to respond [to the court order], so we didn't have enough time to map land uses, wetlands and other elements of frog habitat," said Patricia Foulk, a USFWS spokesperson. "As a result, we ended up with a map that may include a lot of land that doesn't have the constituent elements the frogs need. And where those elements don't exist, we won't regulate."

In general, a critical habitat designation only helps a species in areas where it does not currently exist, Foulk said. Because the frog is a threatened species, it and the wetlands it inhabits already receive federal protection.

The critical habitat proposal would regulate uses of land where the frog historically lived, and could someday be reintroduced or naturally recolonize. The USFWS has not yet determined how much of the 5.4 million acres designated on Friday is actually good frog habitat.

Pt. Reyes

Wetlands and riparian uplands at Point Reyes National Seashore once represented the northernmost coastal habitat for the California red-legged frog (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
Federal agencies or developers that need federal permits for their projects could find it much harder to get permission to use land designated as critical habitat for the frogs.

The California Farm Bureau Federation says a wide range of agricultural activities might eventually be affected by efforts to protect the frog.

The historic range of the California red-legged frog originally extended along the coast from the vicinity of Point Reyes National Seashore south to Baja California, Mexico. Inland wetlands and streamside areas also held frog colonies.

But during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the frogs were harvested for food at a rate of about 80,000 frogs a year. As the frogs become more rare, the market for them declined, but around 1896, bullfrogs were introduced in California to help satisfy the demand for frog legs.

The native red-legged frog soon become prey for the much larger bullfrog, a threat that continues today.

Another major threat is the loss of about 90 percent of historic wetlands, mostly converted to agricultural land.

California red-legged frogs have been eliminated from more than 70 percent of their historic habitat. Of the 80 sites known to have once harbored this species in Southern California, today only one population can be confirmed - at a nature preserve in western Riverside County, which is managed by The Nature Conservancy.


Today, California red-legged frogs are known to live in about 238 streams, and just four of these populations include more than 350 adults (Photo by John Sullivan, courtesy Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund)
"California’s red-legged frogs are part of our historical, literary and cultural heritage," said Dr. Robert Stack, executive director of the Jumping Frog Research Institute, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "It is critically important that we ensure that there will always be frogs jumping here in Calaveras County, and in other places too. Working together, we have an excellent opportunity to bring this species back from the brink."

A complete description of the proposed critical habitat designation for the California red-legged frog is available at:

The USFWS will accept public comments on the proposal until October 11. Comments may be submitted electronically to:

Four public hearings will offer more chances to comment on the proposal:

September 19 - Holiday Inn Ventura, 450 East Harbor Blvd., Ventura

September 21 - Embassy Suites, 333 Madonna Rd., San Luis Obispo

September 26 - Best Western Monarch Hotel, 6680 Regional St., Dublin

September 28 - Holiday Inn Sacramento Northeast, 5321 Date Ave., Sacramento

All hearings will be held in two sessions: 1 to 3 pm and 6 to 8 pm.