Judge lifts controls on red-legged frog lands - Settlement opens 4.1 million acres in California to development while feds draft new plan to protect species

By Douglas Fischer, STAFF WRITER
Alameda Times-Star


California - A federal judge has lifted restrictions on 4.1 million acres deemed critical for California red-legged frogs, leaving the land open to development as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service redrafts a plan to protect the threatened amphibians.

"Things aren't looking too good for the frog," said Peter Galvin, conservation biologist for Center for Biological Diversity.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon in Washington, D.C., approved in July a settlement between the agency and developers to rework the plan -- the largest critical habitat designation in California's history -- with a revised economic analysis.

But to the surprise of environmentalists, the agency agreed to drop the protections entirely while the new blueprint was under way. On Wednesday Leon released his final stay.

"Yes, critical habitat will have to be designated," Galvin said. "The question is how many acres of wetlands habitat will be destroyed (in the meantime). Obviously, (the frog) can't afford to lose additional habitat. But that's what we're faced with here."

The once widespread amphibian inspired Mark Twain's 1865 short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," in which he wrote of a frog named Dan'l Webster that could "get over more ground in one straddle than any animal of his breed you ever see."

Since then that ground has shrunk some 70 percent, and the Center for Biological Diversity claims only four places are known to have populations greater than 350.

In March 2001 the Fish and Wildlife Service slapped restrictions on 4.3 million acres considered likely habitat for the frog. Only an estimated 200,000 acres actually sheltered frogs.

The habitat designation was several years in the making and covered 28 of the state's 58 counties, including almost all of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties and much of Alameda, Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties.

Developers called that excessive and sued, saying the service never adequately considered the economic harm of such a plan.

After developers prevailed on a similar case in New Mexico, the agency settled several lawsuits across the West, including the red-legged frog challenge.

Officers with the Homebuilders Association of Northern California, lead plaintiffs on the case, were not available for comment Friday evening.

Leon's ruling leaves intact protections on 200,000 acres where the frog exists.

"It sounds like that was basically in line with his original decision," said service spokesman Jim Nickles. "We'll comply."


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