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Frog Fight 

Safeguarding habitat for the Chiricahua leopard frog may stir up old disagreements

Cheers went up in March when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to secure critical habitat for the threatened Chiricahua leopard frog.

But there are a few groans, too, most notably among Southern Arizona ranchers who'd probably prefer a sharp stick in the eye to federal biologists poking around their properties.

Though the move to safeguard habitat resulted from a lawsuit by the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, not all environmentalists were thrilled, either. Some argue that the proposed habitat should have encompassed more land—including the site of a controversial proposed mine. Others contend that the designation could rile cattlemen quietly helping in frog recovery. Then there are those who wonder how much the Arizona Game and Fish Department will compromise its coveted sports-fishing programs to help the frogs.

Phil Rosen worries about all three. The University of Arizona herpetologist has long been knee-deep in efforts to tug these frogs back from the brink of extinction. In particular, he says the formal "critical habitat" designation is already spurring second thoughts among ranchers who'd already been helping boost frog numbers in their stock tanks, under so-called "safe harbor" agreements. Those agreements allow private land owners to have endangered species on their property without facing burdensome government restrictions.

Now the proposed change has sown confusion among them, Rosen says. "Apparently, a lot of ranchers think it's going to make a big difference in their operations. But at least in Arizona, it doesn't look like it will."

Very few ranch stock ponds are even included in critical-habitat plans, he says. Even those that are—such as ponds and tanks on leased Forest Service land—would only face modifications that could improve them. And those upgrades probably wouldn't cost cattlemen a dime.

"Although ranchers are deathly afraid of this," Rosen says, "what's going to happen in the worst case is that we'll go looking for funds to cover whatever costs might be incurred, to make it work both for cattle and for frogs."

One source could be Partners for Fish and Wildlife, a volunteer federal program that provides financial and technical support for rehabilitating habitat on private land.

To Rosen, such programs fly in the face of popular rural sentiment. That thinking, he says, assumes that the feds "are the bad guys and they're not going to help ranchers. But (federal Fish and Wildlife) has been really careful, in the habitat designation, to fully support ranchers who have participated in conservation. In fact, they've specifically excluded stock ponds where ranchers have worked for conservation of leopard frogs."

Patrick Bray is executive vice president of the Arizona Cattle Growers' Association. He says ranchers are justifiably concerned, given what he describes as a history of heavy-handedness by Fish and Wildife. And he wonders why the critical-habitat designation is necessary.

"Ranchers have already made several attempts to work with Fish and Wildlife, to re-establish that (frog) population," he says. "We'd much rather see it go down that path of collaboration and working together, rather than putting more mandates and restrictions on the land.

"Obviously, we're always concerned when they designate critical habitat for a species, and what the limitation is on grazing. So we will be reviewing it and submitting comments."

In all, the habitat plan would tag more than 11,000 acres in Arizona and New Mexico as critical for the frog, and restrict sport fishing, mining and grazing on public lands if those activities were seen as harmful to the animal's recovery. The plan could be approved by March 2012, after economic and environmental analyses are complete, and public comments have been vetted.

According to Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "critical habitat" will be driven by biology rather than politics. Still, nothing has been cast in stone. "There's just a proposal out there," he says. "In fact, the (law) specifically directs the secretary of the interior to look at economic factors, and weigh whether the benefit of including critical habitat exceeds the economic costs for particular industries or particular locations."

Still, the absence of one location did raise a few eyebrows. Environmentalists argue that Rosemont Valley in the Santa Rita Mountains deserves to be included as critical habitat. That argument gained importance after a Canadian company made plans to dig an open-pit mine in the valley.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, applauds the critical-habitat plan—with a caveat. "Overall, it's a good thing," he says. "This is a species we've been working to protect for a long time. But there have been some (frog) sites discovered within the footprint of the proposed Rosemont mine, and those weren't included in the critical habitat."

Humphrey counters that there is not a breeding population at Rosemont Valley, "nor is it an area identified as having a high recovery value."

Rosen and Greenwald both raise concerns about the impacts that non-native species—voracious bullfrogs, as well as introduced trout, sunfish and bass—will have on frog recovery. Rosen points to Peña Blanca Lake near Nogales, emptied in 2008 to clean up mercury residue, as an example of what is possible. As mercury was removed, so was the abundant bullfrog population.

Doing the same at other Southern Arizona waterways such as Arivaca, Patagonia and Parker Canyon lakes could also be a boon, Rosen says.

But he questions Arizona Game and Fish's commitment to removing those exotic species—which devastate natives such as the Chiricahua leopard frog—from other lakes.

For instance, exotics in Parker Canyon Lake near Sierra Vista "are making it very difficult to recover Chiricahua leopard frogs in the Huachucas," he says. "Bullfrogs are a problem, and we could use (Game and Fish's) help, but they don't seem terribly inclined to take any major steps to help with that."

Mike Sredl, a Game and Fish herpetologist, says his agency must balance all interests, from sports fishing to endangered species. "I can't tell you that the department will remove the non-natives at the sites that Phil had mentioned. In terms of Chiricahua leopard frog recovery, it makes good sense. But in terms of the bigger picture—and including feasibility—I'm not sure.

"I don't consider any challenge to be insurmountable," Sredl says. "But we need to pursue the recovery opportunities that will bring us the biggest bang for the buck, given our resource limitations. To say it causes tension, that's kind of a no-brainer. But we try to work through those things. That's the creative part of recovery."

More by Tim Vanderpool

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