Spreading southwest from Tucson, the Altar Valley is a rumpled patchwork of flood plains, mesquite bosques and tangled creosote reaching down to the Mexican border.
At first glance, it hardly seems like the kind of place where biological breakthroughs might occur. But out in this valley, the tiny Chiricahua leopard frog is struggling back from the brink of extinction, thanks in part to a far-reaching effort that involves government agencies, environmental groups, wildlife biologists and even area ranchers.
If successful, the project might provide momentum for the recovery of other at-risk reptiles and amphibians in Southern Arizona, from the Mexican garter snake to the Sonoran Desert tortoise. But at the same time, efforts to boost the frog's numbers also reveal many hurdles—both political and budgetary—to protecting our region's most vulnerable creatures.
Phil Rosen is a UA biologist who has watched the leopard frogs' fortunes rise and fall. But finally, he says, there's reason to believe that recovery might stick. Much of that optimism has to do with thriving populations on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, and growing cooperation from ranchers who own critically important stock tanks throughout the area.
"Now the leopard frogs are occupying at least 10 sites on the Buenos Aires," Rosen says. "And the adjoining ranch is letting us get all of the bullfrogs out of there. More of the Chiricahua leopard frogs can spread through that area, once we remove the bullfrog threat."
And what a threat it is. Introduced into Arizona in the 1920s as a food source, the extremely prolific and aggressive bullfrogs lack natural predators here. Not surprisingly, removing these invaders has become the primary mission of conservationists and scientists such as Rosen.
Still, it's only the latest chapter in a story dating back to 2002, when the Chiricahua leopard frog was first listed as an endangered species. The frog's range once included hundreds of sites across the region, but the frog's habitat had dwindled to less than 100 spots—and even those were threatened.
With new protections in place, biologists were determined to turn that trend around. "Today, there are eight designated recovery units for the Chiricahua leopard frog," says Tom Jones, amphibians and reptiles program manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "Seven of those occur in Arizona, so we have a big chunk of the overall conservation pool."
Still, recovery isn't just about removing invasive species, he says. "Our biggest problem in the last 20 years has been drought. You couple drought with other impacts like (urban) development and groundwater draw-down, and that's going to affect habitats for Chiricahua leopard frogs."
Although conservationists can't do much about drought, even measures they can take—such as removing invasive species—are hobbled by tight budgets.
Despite anemic funding, wildlife activists have a few aces up their sleeves. Among them are so-called "safe harbor" agreements, which allow private land owners to have endangered species on their property without facing burdensome government restrictions.
Safe harbor "means you can do things to benefit a federally listed threatened or endangered species, and then go back and undo those things if you need to," says Rosen. In other words, "You're free to increase (endangered-species) populations all over your property, without the government then saying, 'Well, now that you've done this, you've got to stop ranching cattle or whatever.' It protects people who voluntarily do good things from getting wrapped up in regulation."
While this strategy has been key to garnering more cooperation from ranchers, it also demands extensive—and expensive—monitoring of stock ponds and streams. Some worry that a lack of money to maintain that monitoring will slow the program.
Nor is the Chiricahua leopard frog the only species needing attention. "There are also two species of garter snakes that we have great concern about," says Jones. "They are the northern Mexican garter snake, and narrow-headed garter snakes. Northern Mexican garter snakes have recently been named candidates for (endangered) listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Jeff Humphrey cites several more species closely monitored by his agency, including the Tucson shovel-nosed snake and the Sonoran Desert tortoise. The tortoise in particular has been singled out for potential endangered-species listing, he says.
That listing may face better odds under President Obama than the administration of George W. Bush, which was widely viewed as hostile to the environment. "We are seeing more proposed rules and final rules being published now than in the past decade," says Humphrey. "I think what's happening, to a large extent, is that we're holding to some priorities on how we're going to list things and move forward on listings."
But that prioritization also involves adding more species to the queue without necessarily giving them added protection. "There are still some species we've done studies for, and they end up as warranted but precluded," Humphrey concedes. "That means we say, 'This species warrants protection, but there is a list of species of higher priority that's precluding us from running this listing over the finish line.'"
So what's the point? That's the question posed by conservationists such as Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. "In some cases," he says, "species wait on that (warranted) but precluded list for decades."
According to Greenwald, the precluded category is legal only if the agency makes "expeditious progress" toward eventually listing those species. "But we have more than one lawsuit at this point arguing that (Fish and Wildlife) is not making expeditious progress, and therefore, listing species as marginal but precluded is illegal," he says.
As these matters make their way through the courts, some small, imperiled creatures dwelling in mountainside creeks and ranch stock ponds could use some help. To folks like Trevor Hare, these precious hideaways are the true beacons of hope. Hare runs the landscape-restoration program for the Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance, and has spent much of the summer knee-deep in leopard-frog habitat. "We've been in the Tumacacori Mountains and, prior to that, in the Atascosa Mountains," he says. "We also hit Pena Blanca Lake when they recently drained that, and we did a bunch of eradication of bullfrogs there."
The transformation can be breathtaking. "Immediately, when the lake started filling up, and we'd gotten rid of those bullfrogs, the leopard frogs started showing up in those areas," Hare says.
Will such progress continue? "The barriers we face," he says, "are mostly money and political will."