Frog Flurry

State officials kiss up to Rosemont Copper after an endangered-species snafu

Nobody would accuse Rosemont Copper of enjoying a cozy relationship with government overseers.

At times, in fact, their dealings have been downright snarky. For instance, company officials have repeatedly grumbled about delays in getting their proposed mine approved by the Coronado National Forest. Although the mine itself would be on private land, the company needs adjacent Forest Service acreage upon which to pile its tailings and perform mine-related activities.

Nor are Rosemont folks pleased with discussions about some current residents of its planned mine-site—which include the endangered lesser long-nosed bat and the Pima pineapple cactus.

Then there's the Chiricahua leopard frog, a creature distinguished by croaking that sounds like a snore, and by its ranking among species that the federal government believes are threatened with extinction.

As you might expect, Rosemont officials gnash at the notion of having Chiricahua leopard frogs anywhere near their planned copper pit. So imagine their displeasure last year upon learning that Arizona Game and Fish Department biologists had placed leopard frogs on a Rosemont grazing allotment in the Coronado.

What happened next is up to interpretation. Jamie Sturgess is a vice president with Augusta Resource Corporation, the Canadian company that owns Rosemont Copper. When contacted by Tucson Weekly, Sturgess is tight-lipped. "This issue has been resolved," he says.

That appears to be true—at least on paper. But according to a source who asked that a name not be used, Sturgess and crew were hardly so quiet when first informed by a local rancher about the Game and Fish activities. They may have even accused department biologist Mike Sredl of trying to sabotage their mine project, says the source.

However, there were already leopard frogs on the Rosemont allotment to begin with, and wildlife officials were simply relocating frogs from one stock tank to another.

Sredl didn't return a phone call seeking comment. But Eric Gardner, chief of Game and Fish's nongame branch, says his employees screwed up by not giving Rosemont a heads-up regarding the frogs. "We, as well as the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service—nobody coordinated properly with Rosemont. So they got word of that re-release of frogs, and had some concerns about what that could mean."

Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Service distances itself from the whole affair. "Our staff knew about it," says spokesman Jeff Humphries, "but only after the fact."

The Coronado National Forest emphasizes close cooperation with grazing-permit-holders, says spokeswoman Heidi Schewel.

According to Schewel, her agency was contacted by Rosemont Copper about the release, and confirmed to the company that there was already an existing leopard frog population in the tank to which they'd been moved. In an e-mail to the Weekly, Schewel also writes that this particular stock tank, on a Rosemont grazing allotment, was "well outside of both the proposed Rosemont Mine footprint and the Rosemont (Mining) Claims Boundary."

Meanwhile, a month or so after the frog release, Arizona Game and Fish officials reportedly cleared the air with Rosemont, at a meeting hosted by the Forest Service. "We did meet with (Rosemont) about their issues and their concerns," says Gardner. "We had a fairly lengthy meeting with Fish and Wildlife personnel and Game and Fish personnel, and gave a presentation on our Chiricahua leopard frog reintroduction program."

Game and Fish then followed up with a letter. Addressed to Sturgess and dated Sept. 4, 2009, it's a mea culpa, straight from department director Larry Voyles.

"Although department actions on the forest allotment are fully authorized in accordance with state and federal agreements," Voyles writes, "I apologize for not informing you, as the grazing allotment permittee, that we could be moving leopard frogs on your allotment.

"The department strongly desires to work in partnership with Rosemont Copper," Voyles continues, "and I am hopeful that this issue will be resolved so that we can move forward together in our efforts to achieve Chiricahua leopard frog conservation, and eventually de-list the species."

Not surprisingly, some eyebrows have been raised over Voyle's tone—particularly when compared with another department letter in 2008. That one came from Joan Scott, former habitat program manager for Game and Fish's Tucson Regional Office. In it, Scott expressed her wilting view of Rosemont Copper's plans.

"Our preliminary review indicates that despite any and all mitigation measures, this project will result in significant adverse impacts to wildlife, wildlife habitat and wildlife recreation," Scott wrote. "We believe that the project will render the northern portion of the Santa Rita Mountains virtually worthless as wildlife habitat and as a functioning ecosystem, and thus also worthless for wildlife recreation."

The question lingers: How did the agency get from there to here? Gardner says that notifying allotees is a necessary courtesy. But others see an agency that's now curiously quick to capitulate.

Game and Fish folks may be "getting the message to calm down and behave," says Gayle Hartmann, president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, a group opposed to the mine.

"Game and Fish is a funny organization, and they've certainly been quite political in the past," Hartmann says. "Maybe with the current administration in Phoenix, they're getting pressure to be friendlier to the mine."

But others see even bigger forces at work. Among them is Dan Rohlf, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., where he's the clinical director of the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center, and an expert on endangered-species law. "The Endangered Species Act has been very political for a long period of time," Rohlf says, "because anytime you're talking about restricting the actions of humans in order to protect an endangered species, those people whose actions are being restricted are oftentimes unhappy about it."

In this case, "it comes down to the degree that the state is favorable to resource-extraction industries" such as mining, he says. "I think that's why you see the state bending over backward to apologize to those industries."

This is further complicated by the economic hard times, Rohlf says.

"It's easy to denigrate something as 'just a frog,' as opposed to jobs that might be created by the mine," he says. "When you start to make that kind of comparison, it becomes easier for local officials to say, 'We can't let a frog stand in the way of these identifiable jobs and industry in a depressed economy.

"I think those local officials don't stop to think that this is a program to protect the biological heritage of our country."